Look at the way every person in this photograph is grinning, like film stars being mobbed by paparazzi on the red carpet, about subverting the will of the German people. If there is a hell, surely each of these belongs there.
Look at the way every person in this photograph is grinning, like film stars being mobbed by paparazzi on the red carpet, about subverting the will of the German people. If there is a hell, surely each of these belongs there.
Alistair Darling, Back from the Brink: 1,000 Days at Number 11, p. 269:
If I could increase gradually the rate of VAT to 19 or even 20 per cent, I could scrap the National Insurance increase. I could compensate low earners with a package of measures to negate the impact of the VAT increase. On top of that, I could surprise people by cutting both the basic rate of income tax and corporation tax in order to boost growth. I tried this out with Gordon, but was met with an emphatic no. I talked to both Peter and Ed Balls, trying to convince them that we needed something big if we were to come out of this with any momentum at all. While Peter this time had an open mind, Gordon and Ed remained implacably opposed to the VAT increase. There was nothing more I could do, so we stuck with the tax measures previously announced.
Two years later, and thanks to Brown and Balls, not only do we still have their increased NI and income taxes, we also have 20% VAT.
Thanks, guys. Thanks a fucking bunch.
Via @Athena_PR, this:
Nadine Dorries: We should shut down social media networking sites during a public disturbance
I don’t think I’ve written much about Nadine Dorries, but I’ve read the on-going rhetoric wars over her between Dizzy and Tim Ireland, and I know of the bogus ‘hand of God’ scandal. But I was willing to give her—and her party—the benefit of the doubt in some respects until I read this blog post—this blog post—condemning the very web-based social communication that the post itself embodies.
Let us consider: why would Nadine Dorries want to write a blog post for ConservativeHome? First, because it has a large audience to whom she can suck up. Second, because writing a blog post that reaches a large audience is easier than the hard slog of doorstepping, campaigning on the ground, and connecting in person with individuals. Third, because writing a blog post is a crap-ton easier than going on the media rounds, being interviewed by journalists who jealously (if inconsistently) guard speech privileges and who love nothing better than wrong-footing a politician.
So we’ve already identified a host of practical (if cynical) reasons why social media is good for Nadine Dorries.
But curiously, it is this same social media (ooooh, watch out) whose restriction she advocates via the medium of social media.
During 7/7, mobile networks were instantly closed down.
The justification for this, as I recall correctly, was to stop the overloading of networks, which would interfere with emergency response systems. Leaving aside whether or not that makes sense, what Nadine actually says is that:
The precedent to prevent those who present a threat to the safety of civilians from communicating with each other is already set, even though possibly not officially acknowledged by the intelligence services.
So, she acknowledges that the justification given at the time was a lie, and that the actual purpose was to stop ‘civilians from communicating with each other.’
What did it stop? More terrorist attacks, that had been planned and coordinated in advance by people meeting in person? Maybe. More likely, it stopped ‘civilians’ from contacting their loved ones to make sure they were safe, to find out where they were, to help each other, to advise each other, to mourn together, to make plans to meet up and feel the comfort of one another’s company. I’m not at all convinced that interrupting communications networks in the aftermath of disaster is a good response; nor do I believe that causing definite worry and pain to the innocent is negligible when compared to the possibility that further terrorists might be inconvenienced.
Presumably, however, Dorries does: deal with it, you civilians, it’s for your own good.
She carries on:
To compare the intention of a democratically elected, heavily scrutinised Government, to restrict social media use during a public disorder in this country, with the autocratic, secretive regimes of others such as Iran and China, is simply not a sustainable argument.
It is a sustainable argument, actually, when one isn’t tilting at straw men. The intention behind the shutting down of a speech channel by government, and the nature of that government, are immaterial. Whatever the intention or the government, the outcome is the same: a speech channel is shut down. Dorries should know, due to her Christian advocacy, that Christ is not concerned with the roots, but with the fruits. And as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I for one do not give a stuff about the government’s intentions, or its democratic legitimacy. What I am concerned with are the outcomes of its policies. It is possible for an autocrat to lead a blissful society. And it is possible for a democrat to preside over a dystopian one.
But hark! To Dorries, this sort of statement is not hypocrisy, for as she says of another suspiciously grassy figurine:
A peaceful demonstration, voicing a desire for freedom of speech, or free and fair elections in other countries cannot be compared to mass criminality or violent social disorder, which is what we saw take place here during the riots.
Allow me to deconstruct this for you in simple symbolic logic, if I can, for it makes little sense, but I’ll give it a go.
Oppressive regimes = bad.
Violent disorder = bad.
Social media = ?
Where are social media in this argument? Nowhere. What Dorries is saying is that condemning oppressive regimes whilst condemning disorder is not hypocrisy. Well, duh. In other news, comfort is good and pain is unpleasant, and the pope shits in the woods. What has this got to do with anything?
I think I would like Dorries better if she was prepared to talk the talk and walk the walk. If one is going to address the criticism that shutting down social media makes the British government no better than China or Iran, one should really go all out and just admit something along the lines of, ‘You know what? China and Iran have their problems, but this is one issue they have bang to rights. Having one or two things in common with them doesn’t make us fascists, too. After all, Hitler liked dogs and watercolours.’
She’d still be wrong, but at least she wouldn’t be a mealy-mouthed, lying, self-deluding, patronising hypocrite.
And there’s still more to come:
The argument put forward this morning by Andrew, on the Today programme, that a Twitter message may have saved a person in a burning house is false and unprovable. It just didn’t happen. What saved a person in a burning house was screaming out of a window.
Does anyone really think that an individual when sat in the middle of a burning building, would calmly remove a mobile phone from a jacket pocket, select Twitter and post a message which says ‘help, help’?
Well, maybe. I can’t speak for this Andrew chap. He strikes me as something of a dimwit. Of course nobody tweets ‘Help, help.’ But maybe what they tweet is, ‘Hey you guys, is there any rioting near Brixton station? I usually go home past it.’
And maybe what they get is, ‘Yes, there is: find a different way home or you might get hurt.’ So there you go: social media can prevent harm as easily as it can contribute to it.
Conversely, rather than saving lives, the overwhelming use of social media during the riots was seriously harmful. It disseminated information so quickly that it undoubtedly helped to spread the riots across a wider area. This resulted in the tragic loss of life in Birmingham and chaotic disruption in other major cities.
This is a total exaggeration. How many people were involved in the riots, vs how many uninvolved people were helping each other through social media channels? Given the numbers rioting were, you know, small in the grand scheme of the online population, I have to call bullshit on this one.
Especially when one considers the fact that, in the grand scheme of riots, this was pretty paltry. It sucks that people died, and that others’ livelihoods and homes were destroyed. But come on, they had way bigger riots than this in 1381 when barely anybody could write, let alone use Twitter. Social media didn’t facilitate widespread, destructive social upheaval. It partially facilitated shitty little riots, characterised mostly by looting, undertaken largely by people with criminal backgrounds.
You know what else social media facilitates? Widespread communication of condemnation of itself, by hypocritical assholes like Nadine Dorries. The tool that allows rioters to reach a wide audience of fellow rioters is the same tool that allows fascist scum like Nadine Dorries to reach a wide audience of fellow fascist scum. Funny, that. I guess social media can be used for good and evil. But just because Dorries is polluting the series of tubes with her authoritarian wickedness doesn’t mean I think the series of tubes should be switched off.
In proposing to close down social media networking sites when threatening public disorder starts to break out, this Government is acting responsibly in using such a measure as an exercise in damage limitation.
It’s also acting to disrupt a much wider-ranging exercise in damage prevention. Everything has a cost.
We must also remember that Twitter and Facebook were used to spread false rumours, to disrupt vital life saving services such as the Fire and Ambulance services…
Ooh, yet again, the justification that the emergency services need these networks to be clear in order to do their life-saving jobs. As Dorries has already admitted the falseness of that justification with respect to the closing of mobile networks on 7/7, it’s not a particularly effective piece of rhetoric here, but let’s return to something, shall we?
Does anyone really think that an individual when sat in the middle of a burning building, would calmly remove a mobile phone from a jacket pocket, select Twitter and post a message which says ‘help, help’?
Does anyone really think that emergency services personnel when sat in the middle of a riot zone, would calmly remove a mobile phone from a jacket pocket, select Twitter or Facebook, and check for a message which says ‘help, help’?
To the Libertarians who are constantly arguing against the use of CCTV and the very temporary shutting down of social media when necessary, you have to ask yourself this. Is your political principle really more important that the families who lost sons, the shopkeepers who lost their business and the children who have been burnt out of their homes?
My answer: yes.
Because the failure to prevent rioting negatively affected a few thousands, while the failure to protect my principle negatively affects everyone on this planet. Don’t make Stalin’s mistake in thinking that a few thousand horrors is a tragedy, but a few billion is merely a statistic.
I think what bothers me the most here is not that Dorries believes these things, for I’m sure she’s not alone and I know a lot of people sympathise with her views. What really gets my goat is that she is a representative of the Government of this nation; and her well-paid advisors, her party’s well-paid advisors, and the Government’s well-paid advisors appear to have no objection to her advocacy, on a very popular and highly-read social media forum, of the shutting down of social media in technology-based, 21st-century Britain, all in the name of the possible prevention of criminal behaviour that is barely on a par with the kind of social disorder and criminal behaviour that persisted in eras when social media wasn’t even a gleam in your mother’s eye.
I can only assume, from this and from Cameron’s recent waffle, that the Conservative party endorses this kind of bullshit, and that its supporters and voters endorse it as well. And if this is what passes for democratically elected, heavily scrutinised, first-world, free-world governance, then I fear deeply for democracy, elections, scrutiny, and the civilised world.
Dorries notwithstanding, I’m extremely unlikely to support the Conservative party ever, but you entryists out there (and I know there are fuck-tons of you, because you’ve tried your entryism on me), take note: if you don’t stand up and condemn what Dorries and Cameron are saying, you will earn for yourselves many enemies. And if you, by your silence, permit Dorries, Cameron, and their ilk to follow through on this ragged rhetoric with actual policies, you will earn for yourselves so much implacable hatred that you will consider rock bands claiming they will dance when you die to be an expression of positive affection, and moan about how easy Thatcher had it.
Back on Independence Day, I wrote a post that featured a quotation from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
In the comments, my dad totally called me out, because my quotation omitted the phrase ‘by their Creator’ that appears between ‘they are endowed […] with certain unalienable rights.’
Ctrl+C, as I said, was not my friend, and neither was Wikipedia, which is where I Ctrl+C’d from.
Turns out, as many of you may have seen floating around the series of tubes, that Obama did the same thing in a recent speech, and omitted ‘by their Creator’ from his quotation.
Now, if I omitted ‘by their Creator,’ and Obama omitted ‘by their Creator,’ and I got my quotation from Wikipedia, then perhaps Obama…
No. Surely not. Surely the President of the United States, the renowned scholar of American and constitutional history, the guy whose brain (his supporters would have you believe) is even greater than the cranial contents of the awesomely intelligent William J Clinton, is not sourcing his speech quotations from… Wikipedia?
I know lots of people have already remarked on this, but this Guardian blogpost about MPs’ expenses rules has my eyes literally burning with rage.
Not because of what the rules are, of course, but because of the unattributed comments from MPs about them.
We are being treated like benefit claimants. Why don’t they just put up a metal grille?
Implicit snobbery vis a vis benefits claimants, much? As Old Holborn has said, you are benefits claimants. The only difference between an MP’s pay and a benefit claimant’s handout is that the MP pretends to do work for it. Being an MP is obviously not a hardship in any way, despite some of the slogging they have to do (constituency work, natch). The non-monetary compensations are clearly huge, else there wouldn’t be nearly so many toes scrabbling their way up the greasy pole. MPs, don’t pretend your actions are self-sacrificing, or that you are in some way noble for doing the job. You’re not – you can quit at any time, and very likely go into some other job that pays much more. (At least, those MPs with actual talent and intelligence can). But you don’t, because there’s something about being an MP that gets you off, which other jobs wouldn’t do. You’re not serving the public; you’re serving yourself, and you’re doing it with our money. So get used to being treated like benefits claimants.
For Christ’s sake, what has happened if this bloody authority doesn’t believe me when I say my wife is my wife? A utility bill to prove co-habitation? Good God.
None of the bloody authorities believe the rest of us. You want special perks from the state because you’re married? Then you have to prove over and over again that you’re actually married, actually co-habiting – check out the list of documents Shane Greer had to hand over to the state when he wanted permission to marry a foreigner. And of course those all had to be originals. And I’m willing to bet the state kept them a hell of a lot longer than IPSA will be keeping MPs’ utility bills, marriage certificates, and birth certificates. Welcome to the world you helped create, MPs: if you have to hand over original documents to the state to prove every little thing, well, you’re only living the life you’ve imposed on the rest of us.
What happens on a January night in London? I suppose I will have to take the tube, then a bus and then a long walk home. That is not safe.
We just have to accept this because the public is not with us. It will take something really horrendous, such as a woman MP being stabbed on the streets of London because she is not entitled to take a taxi home late at night, before people wake up and realise how unfair this is.
You know what? FUCK YOU. How many winter nights in London have I had to take the tube, then a bus, then walk home? Not only that, I paid for it MYSELF. Let’s put into perspective what these fucking precious female MPs are whining about: before 11pm, they can only claim for travel on public transport. After 11pm, they can claim for taxis.
I’m a woman, I never get to claim for any of these ‘not safe’ journeys on the tube, bus, etc., let alone for the luxury of a fucking taxi, and nobody in parliament worries about me getting stabbed or raped or whatever as I pay my own costs on the ‘not safe’ way.
Ooh, of course, the public will wake up and realise how ‘unfair’ this all is when a woman MP is attacked. You know what? FUCK YOU AGAIN. Women all across London are attacked on a daily basis – it’s really unfair – and MPs refuse to wake up and give a shit about the astounding amount of criminality in Britain. If an exalted lady MP feels unsafe on the fucking BUS before 11pm, how does she think we proles feel about it?
What makes me angriest, however, is the fact that, actually, tube and bus etc. aren’t even that unsafe. I’m on them constantly at all hours – including January nights – and never once has anyone threatened me, harassed me, attacked me, or made me feel even remotely uncomfortable. And, unlike these lady MPs, I’m not going home to Islington, I’m going home to fucking Brixton. If I can walk from the bus stop to my flat in Brixton without a problem, I think these bitches can do the same, especially since they still won’t be paying for it themselves.
The other night, I encountered* a homeless man named Ian chilling on the sidewalk outside a branch of NatWest with his bull terrier, Tyson. He greeted me in friendly fashion as I walked up and did not ask for my spare change.
This may sound ridiculous, or condescending, or both, but that fact had me asking him if I could give him some money – I didn’t want to offend his pride. He said yes rather appreciatively, so I gave him all the cash I had on me, and as I was in no hurry to be anywhere, I sat down next to him for a bit of a chat.
We talked for a while about Tyson and the fact that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. Ian clearly loved his dog, and Tyson was as good-natured a pet as I’ve ever encountered. He sniffed my hand for a bit, then came over to lean on me in that way dogs do so I could rub his back.
Our conversation eventually led to how this man had ended up with two blankets outside of the NatWest, and it was a sorry tale indeed. He had lost his council home when his wife had left with their son – single men are automatically bumped to the bottom of the social housing queue. He was turned away from several shelters – homeless people without drugs or drink problems are at the bottom of shelters’ priority list. Unable to find a legitimate place to sleep, he had taken to spending his nights in car parks and loading docks when he couldn’t beg enough during the day to hire a spot in a hostel, though even that was difficult because most of the hostels don’t allow dogs. When he did manage to beg sufficiently during the day, the police sometimes arrested him for begging, and he was forced to spend his takings on court fines.
That day, he told me, he’d been trying to acquire enough money to buy a sleeping bag – though not by begging, which was why he hadn’t asked me for my change. He was hoping for people’s unprompted generosity, and hampered by the fact that he couldn’t explain his need, for fear of being arrested, unless somebody actually asked him.
‘What about work?’ I asked him.
‘I’m looking,’ he answered, ‘but I don’t have an address. Nobody wants to hire someone who can’t even give a shelter as their address.’
‘What a perverse situation,’ I said, and he nodded in agreement. ‘But there’s an election on,’ I added, aware this was small comfort. ‘You have the vote, you can try to vote for people who will fix that stuff.’
‘I can’t,’ said Ian. ‘You can’t vote if you don’t have an address. And I wouldn’t vote for any of them anyway. I’m tired of politicians saying they help people when all they ever do is make things worse.’
We talked for a little while longer, and I told him I wished there were more I could have done for him. Even as I said it, I was aware of how feeble that statement was. I could have given him more money – enough for him to buy a sleeping bag the next day. Enough to make him comfortable for food and drink for a few days at least, provided nobody robbed him in the night. Had we been anywhere near a shop, I would have bought him some food myself there and then, as I’ve done for other homeless people. And all of that would have helped at least a little bit.
But it wouldn’t have gotten him into a shelter, or found him a job, or protected him from police who find it useful to arrest beggars. And it certainly wouldn’t have restored the franchise to him, the franchise which every British person treats as a natural right. This most vulnerable of individuals, because he has no home, is denied even the tiniest bit of power the vote brings with it. That vote, which so many people have but choose not to exercise, is denied to Ian and people like him because they have no home.
I know he said he probably wouldn’t have used it anyway. I’m also aware that he could have been lying to me through his teeth about his circumstances (though for what it’s worth, I don’t think he was). But even in the midst of all the perverse incentives this man was facing, his disenfranchisement struck me as the most significant. There are hundreds of thousands of homeless British people. Presumably many of those are prevented from exercising this most basic privilege of citizenship.
People told me afterward that the electoral register is linked to addresses to prevent voter fraud. I’m sure that works really well, what with people who have more than one address getting more than one vote. Nevertheless, I find I can’t really countenance a system of electoral fraud prevention that effectively restricts the suffrage of a giant bunch of British citizens.
Can anybody explain to me how this squares with the whole ‘social justice’ thing? Does anybody know if the electoral commission, or any of the parties, have a plan to fix this, or even consider it an issue?
Or is the British body politic perfectly happy with this property-based ‘universal’ suffrage?**
*In Leicester. I swear.
**Please note that I am not making an argument about who, objectively, should have the vote, or whether it should indeed be somehow rooted in property or other kinds of economic activity.
UPDATE: RC informs me that homeless citizens can register to vote by making a ‘declaration of local connection’ at their local Electoral Registration Office. This seems reasonable, but it is clearly not common knowledge amongst the homeless. Also, it occurs to me that people who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered can be liable for a £1000 fine.
It strikes me that the Conservative party came to power in 1979 for the following reason.
The Labour party said, ‘The country is fucked up and needs to be fixed, and we will do so.’
And the Conservative party said, ‘The country is fucked up and needs to be fixed, and we will do so.’
And the British people saw and agreed that the country was fucked up and needed to be fixed, and decided the Conservatives’ plans were more convincing. There was only one step required on the path to judgment, and that step was determining who was more likely to fix the country properly.
The Conservative party has a much more difficult battle this year, because Labour cunningly refuse to agree that the country is fucked up and needs to be fixed. ‘Everything is fine,’ they say, ‘indulge your submerged optimism. Sure, there have been hiccoughs, but all is under control, and any attempts to say otherwise are paranoid, eschatological scare-mongering.’
So now the British people must take an extra step on the path to judgment. First, they must determine whether the country is fucked up and does need to be fixed. Then they may proceed to evaluate which party will do a better job of fixing.
But suppose the British people have determined that, as Labour says, the country is not fucked up at all? Then the Conservatives’ campaign tactics, which revolve largely around trying to convince people that they will do a better job of fixing things, appear non-sensical. In fact, the Conservatives’ policies only make sense if one believes in the fucked-upness proposition. And since Labour have cunningly refused to concede the truth of that proposition, belief in it is by no means universal.
This, I postulate, is why the Conservatives’ lead is not nearly as large as one might expect, or as it was projected to be in 1979 when conditions were similar. Labour have undermined the Conservatives’ appeal as fixer-uppers by claiming that, in fact, nothing is broken.
Therefore I propose that if the Conservatives want to win, they alter their campaigning tactics immediately. Forget ‘broken Britain,’ forget fixing Labour’s mistakes. These are not effective targets because not everyone believes they exist. Focus instead on things that virtually everyone believes in: making government more accountable, democratic, open, responsive, etc. Shoring up civil liberties and the political rights of the people. Almost nobody will argue with these. Stop blabbing on about the deficit, cuts, blah blah finance. Nobody who denies these are problems wants to listen to you going on about them; nobody who accepts these are problems is going to take your puny promises seriously.
First, begin immediately to practise what you preach re: accountability, openness, responsiveness by operating the Conservative party according to these standards. The party is a large organisation very like a government; its own record on these matters will be viewed as an accurate predictor of how the Conservatives will run the government itself. So stop the stupid infighting about selection. Stop providing local associations with shortlists chosen by non-local party leadership. Sure, you might end up with a load of straight, white male PPCs as a result, but that won’t matter because you’ll have shown that you encourage localism and democracy within your own organisation, thus giving voters more confidence that you’ll encourage it across the nation when you’re in charge.
Second, announce everything you intend to do to protect or, if necessary, restore civil liberties. Without mentioning Labour, enumerate every piece of legislation you will repeal or amend to this end. Commit to destroying the NIR and ID cards, repealing the Coroners and Justice Bill, the Digital Economy Bill (if these things have passed), the Civil Contingencies Act, RIPA, etc. If you think a Bill of Rights is desired by the populace, produce a draft and circulate it. Invite suggestions, consultations, the contributions of legal experts, constitutional experts, and so on. Actually tell the country how you intend to ensure the restoration and protection of ancient and long-held liberties.
Then leave the money stuff for later. You’re the opposition party; you don’t have access to the information you need in order to make credible promises about finance. You don’t have access to the civil service brains in the Treasury who could explain the ins and outs of the budget and recommend cuts that wouldn’t affect ‘frontline services.’ You don’t even really know where the money comes from. So quit throwing around silly figures like £7 billion. Instead, reassure people that you are committed to responsible financial management and eliminating waste, and promise that one of your first, if not your actual first, undertakings in Government will be a thorough and completely open auditing of the country’s books, after which you will commit to responsible financial practices and put the budget back into the hands of Parliament as a whole – in which every expenditure, saving, tax cut, or tax rise will have to be approved by the legislature before you can implement it.
Of course, cynicism assures me that none of this will happen, if only because the toothpaste can’t be put back into the tube. Whatever the Conservatives may say, open government, civil liberties, and responsible accounting are inconvenient roadblocks, hardships which no incoming government would deliberately impose upon itself. If you doubt this cynical worldview, all you need do is look at the glorious President Obama, who campaigned on a platform of reversing Bush’s abuses in all these regards, but since winning the election has done precisely nothing to reverse any of them.
In fact, most of Obama’s campaign was a big fat lie, if his actual record as president is anything to go by. But at least he had the sense to lie in order to win. The Conservatives, apparently, lack even that dubious distinction.
The Prime Minister’s speech at the RSA on Tuesday deserves a good kick up the metaphorical backside, for it is an excellent example of how the language of liberty and change has been appropriated to describe actions which are entirely contrary to the principles of liberty, self-government, and human rights – and, of course, change.
Many people have assured me that, without government, there are no rights (‘Look at Somalia!’), and to a certain practical extent, I believe this to be true. If one’s right to life can be trampled upon by someone else with impunity, that right is de facto non-existent. Some government or authority is necessary to guarantee that others cannot infringe my rights – what is known as the rule of law. But that right is equally non-existent if the government itself can trample upon it with impunity, which is why I advocate a limited government without the power to infringe rights. There is naturally room for argument about what system of government best enables that ideal, and about the nature of its limitations and how they are guaranteed. But the ideal itself is sound.
It goes without saying, then, that rights supplied by the government, either through provision or financing, are not what I consider to be ‘rights’ at all, but entitlements; and that a government in the business of providing entitlements is ipso facto approaching the opposite end of the scale from my limited-government ideal, whatever else its virtues may be.
Notwithstanding the question of rights versus entitlements, another advantage of limited government is its inability to change itself. Not only does this confer stability, which is certainly an important consideration, it means that the government has not the power to grant itself more power. However small a remit the government might start out with, if it has the wherewithal to arrogate more and more aspects of public (and private) life to itself, it will not stay a limited government for long. So in addition to safeguarding the rights of the people, a truly ‘limited’ government must not contain within itself an easy mechanism for expansive self-alteration.
Only under the auspices of a government weak in all aspects except the rule of law can a people be both in word and in practice free. That, my friends, is liberty.
Gordon Brown clearly does not see things my way.
His speech, called ‘Transforming Politics,’ displays a curious mixture of impotence, brazenness, and lies.
Impotence, because he is the Prime Minister, and most out of all other Britons has the power to transform politics – yet he insists that the people in their diffuse millions must do this, people whose jobs, families, and responsibilities lie outside the realm of politics, people whose sole real political power is a single vote, warped and distended and subject to pressures far more numerous and dislocated than an individual’s choice of candidate. Gordon Brown has his hand on the tiller; he gets on with the job at hand; he single-handedly saved the world’s banking system. Why, then, is the hand he wraps round the lever of the nation’s political culture so weak?
If he truly wanted to transform politics, he with his executive orders and compliant cabinet and virtual stranglehold on his parliamentary party could do so. There is nothing to stop him. He claims to know what the people want, and he unquestionably has the power to make it happen – why insist that nebulous public action be a necessary condition?
Politicians, and Gordon Brown is no exception, must find it tremendously hard to imagine what they would want from politicians, were they regular people on the street. They have entered the rabbit hole; they are incapable of stepping outside of their own frame of reference. Ask any man or woman in the grocery store or the bus queue, and they will tell you: politics should be practised by decent people who are not obviously fraudsters, liars, confidence tricksters, or panderers, who realise that their job in a democracy is to represent the will of their constituents and advocate for policies that are beneficial, practical, and above all reasonable.
Ask a politician what sort of person should be practising politics, and who the hell knows what answer you’ll get. It might be the one I mentioned above. It might be ‘whoever knows what’s best.’ The honest answer (which you’ll never get from a politician, obviously) is either ‘me’ or ‘whoever can get the votes.’ This is not unfounded supposition; it is revealed preference.
Brazenness, because he appears to believe that if he repeats well-worn memes often enough, someone, somewhere, might derive meaning from them. How many times have we heard the following:
‘power back to the people’
‘giving people… rights to control the services they depend upon’
‘power redistributed away from the centre’
‘fair access to all’
‘improving public services’
‘lasting peace and shared prosperity’
Brown endlessly repeats the buzzwords and key phrases, empty assurances that nobody disagrees with and which therefore mean nothing. Brown’s key speech about transforming politics is a repetition of all that his Government has been saying for the past decade. And he does not imagine his listeners will pick up on the obvious contradiction: change and transformation are in reality more of the same.
Lies, because he represents himself as a champion of the people against an outdated, unfair, and ossified constitution – which was equally outdated and ossified thirteen years ago when Labour won a landslide of seats under its unfair auspices. If the need for constitutional reform is so obvious now, it was equally obvious then, yet Labour did nothing. If, as Brown says, the choice is between ‘a new politics, where individuals have more say and more control over their lives,’ or ‘a discredited old politics, leaving power concentrated in the hands of the old elites,’ why were the British people not presented with this choice thirteen years ago, when it was no less real and pressing?
Constitutional reform is the last refuge of the desperate. With little prospect of a democratic mandate under the current system, acutely aware of his general unpopularity but clinging on to power with determined and bloody fingertips, the constitutional reformer sets out to circumvent imminent oblivion in the only way left to him: changing the rules in the middle of the game. It isn’t that the rules don’t need changing; it’s that he hadn’t the will to change them when he was winning. Now that he is losing, he suddenly apprehends that the same rules which used to give him unfair advantage will now deliver unto him unfair defeat.
What were once unfair rules must now become fair, before the game is over, while he still has the power to change them. He is a creature of the immediate; he will not bide his time until the next game.
Does Gordon Brown believe we will not notice this? And if we do notice it, does he expect we will trust in his party to deliver the constitutional change that best suits the people rather than what best suits the Labour party? He, with his parliamentary majority, his executive authority, his supine monarch, his cowardly cabinet, his draconian whips, his placemen in the upper house?
And so he promises us change for our own good, change that will empower the people and enhance their liberty, change dressed up in the beautiful language of freedom and democracy, concealing the meretricious reality beneath: that this government has great power, too much power, and cannot be stopped from infringing the people’s rights or changing itself to accrue yet more power. If this were not so, Brown’s constitutional reforms would be a pipe dream. And yet we are supposed to believe that the endpoint of this vast exercise of authority is to reduce that authority.
Forgive me if I’m a bit doubtful.
And yet it’s all so plausible, which is how he gets away with it. What reforms, specifically, is he proposing?
1. A democratically accountable House of Lords.
…a modern democracy cannot tolerate power to initiate and revise legislation being held for ever by those without a mandate from the people.
Quite right. While there are certain advantages to having an upper house that is not susceptible to the whims of the populace, such a chamber is manifestly not representative of the will of the people.
The cynical interpretation: an undemocratic upper house is also not susceptible to the whims of the Commons and acts as a bulwark against hasty, radical change and as a brake on the tremendous power of the Commons. More than in practically every other Western democracy, the majority party in the elected legislature of Britain wields almost unchecked authority. The unelected, (theoretically) non-partisan Lords is one of the few impediments.
But, I hear you say, the upper house in the United States, the Senate, is elected and partisan, and still gets the job done! To which I reply, the lower house in the US, the House of Representatives, has nothing like the power the House of Commons wields. The majority party in the House of Representatives is not the Government, and its leaders constitutionally lack executive authority.
Only when executive authority in Britain is separated from the majority party in the Commons does having an elected House of Lords make sense. While the majority party in the Commons continues to control both the legislature and the executive, making the Lords both partisan and elected will only strengthen that control, not weaken it.
So does Brown propose to reform the Commons in accordance with this prognostication?
2. Increase parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account.
…parties should elect their own members of select committees in a secret ballot; select committee chairs should be elected by a ballot of the whole house; and non-government business should be managed by members of parliament, not the executive.
Quite right. Parliament is in theory sovereign; it should also be so in practice.
…the proper role of parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive and it should be given all the necessary tools to do so.
Parliament should, at this moment, deny Gordon Brown the ability to give them these tools. For tools which can be given can also be taken away. And once it is statutory that Parliament scrutinises the executive at the will of the executive, the legitimacy of that will is forever enshrined in the constitution. When power is granted, it is just as important to examine the implications of the granting as the actual power. This reform serves only to cement further the control of the executive over the operation of the sovereign legislative body.
3. Electoral reform, from FPTP to AV.
The alternative vote system has the advantage of maintaining the benefit of a strong constituency link…
I am sure this is true.
The first past the post system maintains a clear link to a member of parliament’s constituency and it has usually given governments a clear mandate to govern.
If this is true, why change it? We don’t fix what isn’t broken. FPTP maintains the same strong link to the constituency as AV would; in addition, it has the advantage of usually conferring a clear mandate to govern. What does AV offer that overcomes this obvious advantage of FPTP?
…it also offers voters increased choice with the chance to express preferences for as many of the candidates as they wish.
Ah. AV allows a major party candidate to slide into office as the second preference of those who voted first for a smaller third party. The alternative-vote system will clear up that nasty problem of marginal seats while having little negative effect on elections in safe constituencies. To complete our journey through cynicism, all we need ask is: what is our biggest third party, and which major party are its voters more likely to prefer as their second preference?
Hands up all those who voted Lib Dem in 2005 because they hated Blair the war-monger but couldn’t stomach voting Conservative.
4. Transparency in public decisions and documents.
Over and above our commitment to transparency through FOI we are committed to progressively reducing the time taken to release official documents – ensuring the public have access to public papers far quicker than ever before.
I have no problem with this, actually; it’s one of the few pieces of wheat in all of this chaff. But it is only a small step in the right direction; the government of this nation needs to realise that all public business – everything done in the name of the people with the democratic authority of the people as its claim to legitimacy – must be open to the people. All documents should be official, and all documents should be public. All meetings, committees, hearings, inquiries, and the record of their business should be accessible to the electorate. Everything done in the name of the people and by right of their democratic authority belongs to the people.
5. Make public services more responsive to individual users.
Public services will not only be more personal in future but they will be more interactive – with the ability of the citizen enhanced to make their views known directly and influence the way our communities work.
Just one problem. At the moment, public services are accountable to the government. The government, as properly elected representatives of the people, oversees their operation, officially assesses their quality, and controls their funding. The government is the middleman, the mediator, between the public and the public services. The best way to make the public services directly accountable to the public is to remove the middleman. Will the government now allow the people to directly oversee the operation of public services, to directly assess their quality, and to directly provide and control their funding?
…we do not rest our case on the delivery of better services to people merely on aspirations or targets: we are offering personal guarantees to citizens about the rights they can expect and enjoy.
The government will still be the mediator. As mentioned above, whatever it is in the power of government to grant, it is also in the power of government to take away. And so more and more authority gathers at the centre. Rights which are granted by government are not rights at all, but entitlements; and entitlements granted to the people are as far from being ‘subject to people’s direct control’ as it is possible to be.
6. Strengthening local government.
Local government should be free to innovate and to be creative in delivering better public services.
…we inherited a situation where local government had been starved of funding and had very little power over decisions taken that affected their communities.
This is an implicit admission that he who controls the funds controls the power; and by starving local government of funds, central government had also starved it of power. Nothing in Gordon Brown’s proposals mentions giving local governments responsibility for raising their own funding. As long as local authorities must rely on the central government to pay for whatever it is they deliver, they will always be at the mercy of central government’s demands, no matter how ‘free to innovate’ they may theoretically be.
In fact, Brown skirts around this issue with admirable vagueness (if vagueness is the sort of thing one admires):
It is true that in the past local government has had too many streams of funding from a multitude of central government sources. Our total place reforms are potentially transformative in the better use of resources: they will allow local government and its partners to reach across all the funding coming into an area and enable better choices to be made at a local level about how this money is spent.
I’m not even sure what he means. What are ‘total place reforms’? How reassuring is that word ‘potentially’? What he appears to be getting at is that although the funding will still come from central governments, it may no longer be hypothecated, so local authorities will have more say in how to spend their hand-outs. I’m at a loss as to why he needs such an elaborate circumlocution to make that point, unless it is his desire to gloss over the fact that central government will still control the extent of local spending.
7. Codify Britain’s unwritten constitution.
…I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to lead work to consolidate the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under our existing constitution into a single written document.
The various arguments for and against written constitutions are numerous and complex, and it may well serve the British people to have a definitive document; others will know better than I whether this is the case.
In the summer I announced that we would consult on the question of codifying our constitution as part of the consultation exercise on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.
For those of you who have not read the consultation document on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, allow me to draw your attention to some of the key points contained in the Ministry of Justice’s green paper.
First, the government considers that the key constitutional question in need of answering is
of the relationship between the citizen and the state and how this relationship can best be defined to protect fundamental freedoms and foster mutual responsibility as this country is going through profound changes.
The impetus for this kind of constitutional codification is explicitly the presence of change and crisis. Gordon Brown believes that ‘if we are to decide to have a written constitution the time for its completion should be the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in Runneymede in 1215.’ That gives us five years, during a time of change and crisis, for formulation, deliberation, debate, revision, judicial scrutiny, and finalisation. Enforcing an arbitrary time limit on a process that requires deep scholarship, consultation, bipartisan agreement, and lengthy deliberation during a time of change and crisis when that process cannot even command the government’s full attention is a recipe for disaster. (And the time limit is essentially arbitrary. There is no pressing need for a codified constitution by 2015. The year just happens to be the anniversary of something vaguely historically relevant on the popular connotations of which Brown would like to capitalise.)
Second, the codified constitution being mooted is not the lofty, concise document the United States enjoys, which merely sets out the fundamental rights of the people and the operation of their government. No, the British version will contain much more:
How individuals should live together, what rights and freedoms we should enjoy in relation to one another and against the state and how they should be balanced by the responsibilities we owe each other are among the most fundamental questions in politics. They are not abstractions, removed from the practical politics of jobs and housing and healthcare and education, because they concern the constitutional arrangements which determine how power is distributed in our country. They determine how every other question in our public life will be answered. They are not just about the historic protections of the individual against the state and balancing liberty and security. They are also about the frustrations that can arise in daily life, especially when using public services, and reflect the key role for town halls in tackling these frustrations by making information easy to access and involving local people in the decisions which affect them. They are about getting support to combat anti-social behaviour and to tackle the discrimination and prejudice many of our people still have to endure. They are about the smoking ban, the hunting ban, and taking action to prevent climate change.
This constitution is to be about everything a Briton encounters in his public life – except, apparently, the structure of his government, which is nowhere mentioned.
Third, this constitution will deliberately not include some of the things we have come to consider fundamental rights. Consider, for instance, this passage:
Additional protections in relation to liberty of the person or fair trials may not be necessary as the belief in their fundamental nature is already so deeply entrenched, culturally and politically, and there is no fundamental threat to them. At this stage, the Government does not propose the inclusion of the principle of habeas corpus or a right to trial by jury in any new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, but it remains open to all arguments for and against as part of an informed public debate.
The Government does not propose to include habeas corpus, fair trials, and trial by jury in the written constitution as, apparently, there is no threat to these rights and no current need to protect them. You may draw your own conclusions about the wisdom of that plan.
Fourth, the proposed constitution is not intended to have legal effect – that is, the rights or responsibilities codified therein are not intended to be enforceable by an individual in court. It is not intended to have the statutory force of an Act of Parliament. In fact, its purpose would be only this:
A non-statutory declaration could be readily amended and updated over time. Its effect would be intended as primarily political and symbolic rather than legal. The fact that a charter or declaration might not have statutory force or was otherwise not justiciable would not mean that the exercise or the text itself lacked force. It could still carry great legitimacy in the wider sense of that word, by the strength of the consent behind it, and by the way in which it helped to set standards, as yardsticks of the behaviour we expected of others and of ourselves as members of UK society.
In short, Brown’s ‘written constitution’ would be a poorly-drafted, cumbersomely huge, non-traditional, non-justiciable framework setting out the minutiae of Britons’ lives without holding the government to any definitive principles of action or, even, guaranteeing its legal responsibility to protect the rights listed therein, let alone enforce the many entitlements also included.
(There are numerous other problems with this proposed ‘constitution,’ which you may identify by reading it yourself provided you accept the risk to your blood pressure.)
The rest of Brown’s speech is a clever call for his political opponents to agree with him. This, truly, is the language of politics: for if they disagree with him, they would entrench privilege and unfairness at the expense of the people; and if they agree with him, there is no need for them at all.
The not-so-clever part of his peroration is the constant call for change. Change, by definition, would be something different from what we have now. And what we have now, what we have had for thirteen years, is Labour. I have to wonder at Brown’s motivation for reminding us all of that. And for enumerating a deliberate and concentrated program of attacks on the existing checks and balances on the Government’s power that are, at the moment, the only institutions and processes in the country that limit the majority party’s near-incalculable power over public life and protect the few fundamental liberties remaining to the people of Britain.
Republican leaders in Congress called for a reworking of the bill, which would provide near universal coverage and aimed to bring down long-term costs. But Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House Speaker, argued that because Massachusetts already had near-universal health coverage under a state law, the vote should not be seen as a referendum on the issue.
“We don’t say a state that already has health care should determine whether the rest of the country should. We will get the job done. I’m very confident,” she said.
It’s because Massachusetts already has just such a health care system as the one Pelosi’s Democrats are proposing that the opinion of their citizens is worth more than that of any other state’s.
They know what it’s like. They know what it costs. And they know that if the Democrats get their retarded bill passed, the citizens of Massachusetts will be paying through the nose twice.
That’s one of the great things about the federal system, you see: experiments can be tried in the states that want them, and the results can be judged by the rest of the country as either worth duplicating or worth abandoning. Massachusetts has done the experiment the Democrats would like to foist on the whole country. Not only have the other states looked at Massachusetts and said, ‘Dude, that doesn’t look like it’s working out so well, maybe we’d better not try it here,’ the people of Massachusetts themselves have said, ‘This isn’t going so well for us! Don’t try it at home!’
I reckon Nancy Pelosi should take a long, hard look at what’s happened to the healthcare system in Massachusetts, if for no other reason than because costs there have skyrocketed beyond all expectation, and seriously reconsider whether she wants to push the same money-suck on the entire rest of the nation.
Unless, of course, she wants to go down in history as the Politician Who Bankrupted America. Because you can bet your sweet buttocks it won’t be Obama who gets blamed. A man who can rise to president from two years’ experience of national office and prior experience in a Democrat safe seat and in a Democrat safe state’s legislature is more than canny enough to figure out a way to let some other poor bastard take the fall.
From the TaxPayers’ Alliance comes the news that the Tories are planning… to be absolutely no different from Labour:
Well, it’s the second day of the unofficial 2010 election campaign and already it appears that the Conservatives have pledged to create a new quango. In a speech today to the Oxford Farming Conference, Shadow Environment Secretary Nick Herbert is pledging to create a “Supermarket Ombudsman”. Sigh. So much for a “bonfire of the quangos”.
Yes, that’s right: the Conservatives have pledged to create government oversight of the retail food supply. This is in addition to the NHS policy announced earlier this week, in which they pledged to create more government oversight of health allocation:
To make sure the NHS is funded on the basis of clinical need, not political expediency, we will create an independent NHS board to allocate resources to different parts of the country and make access to the NHS more equal. (Page 8)
So we have another new quango, explicitly designed to remove the people’s control of how the biggest budget in British Government is spent. Of course, when you want to make democracy sound like a bad thing you call it “political expediency”, rather than “accountability” as it was termed earlier in the very same document.
It seems that despite all the speechifying about the post-bureaucratic age, the Conservatives are yet to shake the temptation to slam everything into a quango and then wash their hands of responsibility. Not exactly change we can believe in.
Too right. ‘Change we can believe in’, British-style, appears to be the same as it was Obama-style: more of the same, really, but dressed up in attractive language.
Meanwhile, the discerning voter begins to feel rather like Sally from Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat: weary of the identical Thing One and Thing Two, and desperate to rein in their nonsense before they destroy the whole house.
UPDATE: And hey look, I agree with Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy!
But let’s assume we want these decisions to be more accountable. A good idea in theory right? But what’s this?
With less political interference in the NHS, we will turn the Department of Health into a Department of Public Health so that the prevention of illness gets the attention from government it needs.
Less political interference? But I thought that was more ‘accountable’ surely?
Can we file this under the Steve Hilton award for ‘Progressive Gobbledegook’?
Truly, Camerhoon is a uniter, not a divider.