Aug 172011
 

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.

She says:

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’?

Finally:

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.

Feb 072010
 

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’

‘democratically accountable’

‘giving people… rights to control the services they depend upon’

‘change’

‘power redistributed away from the centre’

‘fair access to all’

‘improving public services’

‘lasting peace and shared prosperity’

‘neighbourhoods’

‘diversity’

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?

No.

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.

But:

…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.

However:

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.

Excellent.

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.

Great.

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?

No, because:

…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.

Quite right.

But:

…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.

Jan 162010
 

Longrider has a cracking good fisking of an article in the Independent by the ‘timorous’ Howard Jacobson:

Living involves risk. Every time we go anywhere there is risk. There is greater risk of a road traffic incident than there is from the bogeymen. There is far more risk of dying in the home than there is from the jihadists. Get a sense of proportion and get a grip. And, take a moment or two to reflect on Benjamin Franklin’s words on this. Protection from bad men is not a right.

If the police, no matter how clumsy, are our protection, how does it benefit us to have lawyers in another country hampering their operations? View it how you will, this victory for the civil libertarians is nothing short of an overwhelming defeat for the people whose liberties they claim to uphold.

This man is an absolute wanker.

I urge you to go and read the whole thing.

Dec 032009
 

Charlotte Gore has written an insightful post about the challenge of taking libertarian political ideas, and the Libertarian Party, mainstream. As she points out, libertarianism is still more popular online than out in the ‘real world.’ There are a number of reasons for this, but she flags up two rather important ones: first, it can seem intellectually exclusive, given the complex character of libertarian literature; second, the online libertarian community consists largely of self-selecting, not to put too fine a point on it, geeks.

The combination of these factors can often result in accusations that libertarians act both superior and selfish, and in a perception that the community is either anti-social or misanthropic.

She uses DK’s election to the leadership of LPUK as an example of this:

So Chris Mounsey’s election to leader of the Libertarian Party is fantastic news for fellow “evil nerds”, but can Chris reach out to a more broad audience? Chris runs the infamous and fantastically sweary Devil’s Kitchen blog, and because he’s one of the naughtiest geeks (second only to the incredibly, incredibly naughty Guido Fawkes) he’s right at the top of the evil dork hierarchy.

Sadly political change doesn’t come from a small hardcore niche of political obsessives though – at least, it doesn’t end there. It starts there (and you can argue that the internet has made that easier) – but movements either go mainstream or they remain in the shadows like mental state socialist and communist groups of old.

So the challenge for Chris – and all libertarians – is to find a way to communicate a libertarian message to non-geeks, to ‘normal’ people. I know I’m stumped on this, and have been for some time – but still doesn’t change the fact it needs doing.

Obviously I’m biased, but I think this is an incomplete, and slightly inaccurate, view.

During the course of my time here in the UK, I have met any number of libertarians, some of whom are members of LPUK, some of whom are bloggers – and some of whom are one or the other or neither. And with rare exception, they are friendly, sociable, articulate, and down-to-earth. There is nothing inaccessible about them. They are fine people, and perfectly ‘normal’ in that they go about living their lives with as much practicality, robust good sense, and everyday concerns as anybody else. Libertarians are not freaks.

Chris is no different. As anybody who has listened to him speak, watched him on 18 Doughty Street back in the day, or met him in person knows, he is not a raving, swearing lunatic. The Devil’s Kitchen is a persona, the kind of irreverent ranting we do inside our heads but rarely share – and the fact that most of us have a Devil’s Kitchen version of ourselves in there does much to explain why his blog is so popular. It doesn’t mean that’s how we, or Chris, conduct ourselves in the usual course of things.

In saying all of that, I mean that libertarians (and Libertarians) are both ‘normal’ and entirely capable of reaching a broader audience of other ‘normal’ people. How to accomplish this was a topic of much discussion at the AGM last weekend. The problem is not the messengers; it’s the message.

And that’s because most people live in constant, low-grade fear of any kind of risk. The power and largesse of the state allow them to pool that risk, to shuffle it off onto others, to deny (usually quite legitimately) their own responsibility for the big things that go wrong and to absolve themselves of blame and the consequences whenever little things go wrong. The state is their protection from risk: because it is big, because it is distant and complicated and unfathomable, because ‘smart’ people are running it, but most of all because it has the power of compulsion. It can force people to help you when you fuck up, even if they don’t want to, and that means the state protects you from the biggest risk of all: trusting in the basic humanity of other people.

Because we all know people are assholes, right? A couple of weeks ago, DK was giving a talk at the ASI about friendly societies. There was a Tory chap there whom I was chatting with afterwards, and he said he thought it was a nice idea but it wouldn’t work – especially the charitable aspect – because people wouldn’t use their money to help others.

I found this hard to believe – people give to charity now, even though they have a lot less money in their pockets than they would do if the state didn’t take so much of it away – and asked him if he would voluntarily donate to help people in the absence of expensive state welfare. He thought for a moment and said, ‘No, I don’t think I would.’

This is not meant to bash Tories – I’m not suggesting this particular guy was in any way representative of that party as a whole – but to illustrate that even people who are sympathetic to the economic case for libertarianism don’t trust in their own basic humanity. I fear for libertarianism specifically, and the world in general, if what that guy believes about himself, and others, is true. Because it would mean that people want to avoid responsibility for their right acts as well as their wrong ones. That not only do they need the state to stop them from being evil, they need the state to force them to be good.

This suggests there is a profound flaw in the moral code of our society, wherein the highest social virtue is not doing what is good, but doing what is safe. As long as this flaw persists, no amount of personable, ‘normal’ libertarianism is going to sell the message.

Nov 072009
 

Via the West Virginia Rebel, I am directed to some commentary about the recent shooting at Ft. Hood.

For those of you perhaps not au fait with this, as it happened on 5 November, a US army psychiatrist recently promoted to the rank of major and about to be deployed to the Middle East entered a building on the base at Ft. Hood and opened fire on the soldiers and civilians there, killing 13 people and injuring at least twice that number. He himself was wounded but not, apparently, killed, and is in hospital.

Mark Noonan, who should himself perhaps consider seeing a psychiatrist, reacts with all the illiberal, childish venom I’ve come to expect from American political discourse:

A terrible event – but I don’t want anyone to call it an “act of violence” or “a terrible tragedy”. It was an attack – one or more men decided with malice to attack a US military base. We need to get right down to the bottom of this – and, liberals, if the stories of accomplices in custody are true, this is where harsh interrogation might be needed: whoever was involved in this most emphatically does not have a right to remain silent.

This shooter, however heinous his crime, is an American citizen and, before two days ago, would have been just as staunchly defended by these types as a patriot to be supported with the ubiquitous yellow ribbon.

Now, apparently, he deserves torture and the loss of his constitutional rights. Why?

Because (a) he shot some soldiers, whose lives are evidently de facto more valuable than anyone else’s, at least when they’re on home soil. And because (b) he happens to be a Muslim.

I’ve read no credible reports to suggest that this shooting was any more a ‘terrorist’ attack or any more religiously or culturally motivated than, for example, the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. What I have read is that the man is a natural-born American and served his country for decades before choosing this destructive course of action. That he is a Muslim, or the child of immigrant parents, means nothing.

Mark Noonan and his commenters, many of whom are crazier than he is, would deny this man the protections the law gives him because they don’t like what he did or the reason for it which they ascribe to him. Shooting people is a dreadful thing to do – one for which I am hard pressed to express my feelings – but overturning the rule of law because you’re a pissed-off little prick is arguably more dangerous. A gunman can only harm people within the range of his gun; a mockery of a justice system propped up by a democracy that excuses torture harms everybody.

Anyone can do it better

 indolence  Comments Off on Anyone can do it better
Oct 302009
 

Including teenagers, it seems, though I’ve long suspected this so it comes as no surprise.

The Youth Parliament have more fiscal responsibility, common sense, and awareness than 99.9% of MPs:

Funmi Abari, a member of the Youth Parliament from London, opened the first debate – on scrapping university fees in England and Wales – with an appeal for financial rectitude and self-reliance of a passion rarely seen since Margaret Thatcher stood at the same despatch box, years before Miss Abari was born.

“There is no such thing, Mr Speaker, as a free lunch,” she thundered, arguing that free tuition would not widen access and that students should pay their way like everybody else, ending with a flourish: “Lowering fees to what they are actually worth? Hell yes, that’s fair.”

Of course, a university degree is so devalued these days that lowering fees to what it’s worth is practically the same thing as making it free.

Indeed, by the end of the morning session, quite a few MPs had slipped into the chamber to watch the next generation in action.

John Bercow introduced each one of them as they came in, not unlike a ringside announcer at a boxing match spotting celebrities in the crowd: “And here is the government chief whip, Nick Brown….”

Mr Brown gave an awkward little wave.

Perhaps he, like the other “grown-up” MPs in the chamber, was starting to feel more than little past his sell-by date.

And so he should. The wreckage of this country, and the West in general, can be laid entirely at the door of everybody over the age of 45. You fuckers wanted to be looked after, you voted for it, and you sold the liberty of your children and your grandchildren in return for…what? The right to pick each others’ pockets and the security of tagging everybody with a bar code? When the revolution comes, you’ll be lucky if you don’t get shot.

And pardon me whilst I’m cynical, but I can’t help feeling very little enthusiasm, in the end, for the members of the Youth Parliament. Presumably they want to be involved in politics someday. Unfortunately, it’s an unofficial law of physics that anybody who wants to be a politican re ipsa should never be allowed to be one. Alas.

Aug 052009
 

Oh, George. Read your own words:

As any old hippy will tell you, festivals aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when you could announce a happening, call up a few mates with drums and guitars, and put the word out that something groovy and free was about to kick off. In these buttoned-down times, it would be treated like an al-Qaida training camp. Today, you must apply for a licence and spend months of your life filling in forms and liaising with the various responsible authorities. There are good reasons for this: it ensures that no one is crushed to death and that local people aren’t harried by intolerable noise and disruption. There are also bad reasons: the controlling, snooping, curtain-twitching state tendencies which insist that all spontaneity be planned six months in advance, that no one can ever take her top off or smoke homegrown weed or get a little bit outrageous – even within a festival site – for fear of offending some tight-arsed busybody in desperate need of a life.

You didn’t defend us when they snooped in our rubbish bins. You didn’t defend us when they fined us for not recycling properly. You didn’t defend us when Jamie Oliver wanted to dictate what chickens we buy at the supermarket. You have been, for some time now, one of the tight-arsed busybodies in desperate need of a life.

And now they’ve turned on you and your pet causes, too. Doesn’t feel nice, does it? Lie in the bed you helped to make, George. Lie there and learn to love it.

Jun 202009
 

wh00ps has written a post, complete with picture of the story in the newspaper, about the trial of 4 men accused of an armed robbery at Heathrow, now to take place without a jury.

It made me wonder, for all that trial by jury has been a part of the British polity for centuries, why we use juries in trials at all. And came up with this:

The state acts as the arbiter of justice on behalf of its citizens; everything the state does, legally, is in the name of and as a proxy for the citizenry of that state. In order to preserve this legal idea, legal responsibility and, if necessary, restitution, must be decided on by some representative group of citizens (a jury), who provide the consent of the citizens in general to the courts decision, and legitimise the action of the state on their behalf.

This development – trial without jury – turns its back on the concept that the state is acting as proxy for the citizens. It undermines and even denies the idea that it is the people who are sovereign, who direct the actions of the state, and who give their consent to those actions through representative groups.

This is the state assuming ultimate authority; this is one of the state’s great ‘Fuck you’s to the people of Britain. It is now acting without your consent; it has deemed your consent unnecessary. It has denied you an election, it has denied you the chance to be the arbiter of your representatives’ behaviour, and now it is denying you representation at all. The laws of this country are no longer made according to the will of the people; the courts will now no longer operate according to the will of the people; the State is all – your consent is unnecessary – your sovereignty has ceased to exist – you do not govern yourselves – this is not a democracy. The State is separate from and superior to you, and the consent of the governed to be governed is no longer required.

You have given away your collective power, and now the State sits in judgment of you, not your fellow citizens.

I would say you have allowed this to happen without a murmur, except that I’m sure everyone who reads this blog has been murmuring, asserting, shouting, and screaming it to the skies for some time now. It is everyone else, who goes about his or her daily life without any thought or care of being the servant instead of the master, who should be ashamed today.

Jun 152009
 

Habeas corpus, as far as I understand it, is simply a writ that a detained individual is being held to await the judgement of a legally constituted court of the validity of charges against him:

corpus…habeas…ad subjiciendum et recipiendum ea quae curia nostra de eo adtunc et ibidem ordinare contigerit in hac parte.

It is a constitutional principle only insofar as the writ demands that proof be presented to the court that the detention of the individual is lawful; it also states that without such convincing proof, the court will release the individual. A detained individual has, therefore, the right to challenge the charge and evidence against him before he is formally tried. If the charge and evidence are found to be valid by the court, he will then be remanded to await trial.

There appears to be some debate, at the Devil’s Kitchen and at Tom Paine’s, about whether this appears in Magna Carta. It doesn’t, obviously, as Magna Carta is a charter of liberties, not a legal writ that refers to the detention of a specific individual. However, Magna Carta does protect and confirm the legal necessity for writs of habeas corpus in Article 39:

nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonetur, aut disseisiatur, aut utlagetur, aut exuletur, aut aliquo modo destruatur, nec super cum ibimus, nec super cum mittemus, nisi per legale judicium parium suorum vel per legem terre.

The necessity of providing proof that an accused individual ought to be detained, and his right to challenge that proof before a court, already existed in legem terrae; Magna Carta confirms them.

Tom Paine says: ‘For the first time in history, it limited the power of the state. It ended the rule of men and began the rule of law.’

This is not entirely accurate; what Magna Carta actually does is enumerate legal principles that already existed, but which John had routinely ignored or infringed; for the first time, Magna Carta enshrined what all men already held to be true, that the monarch was bound to observe his own laws. That Magna Carta had to be written, and John had to sign it, is merely a function of common law: it created a recorded precedent, thus overriding what had already been convention.

It is also slightly unfair to say that ‘you will be disappointed by’ the other articles.

No. 2 confirms the level of payment of relief upon inheritance – in other words, the Crown cannot demand extortionate inheritance taxes.

No. 3 confirms that underage heirs are not liable for relief/inheritance tax.

No. 4 confirms that trustees cannot plunder an underage person’s inheritance.

No. 7 confirms that widows do not have to pay relief/inheritance tax upon their husband’s death.

No. 9 confirms that only movable goods may be seized for payment of debt – not homes or land.

No. 12, 14, 15 and 16 confirm that no scutage (payment in lieu of service, i.e. tax) can be levied without the consent of those who would be paying it, and even then the Crown cannot demand more than what is reasonable and has been agreed upon.

No. 17, 18, and 19 confirm that people must be tried for crimes in the jurisdiction where they reside or in the jurisdiction where the crime took place.

No. 20 confirms that fines for offences cannot be levied arbitrarily, must be proportionate to the offence, and cannot result in the deprivation of livelihood.

No. 24 confirms that courts held by inappropriate authorities are invalid.

No. 27 confirms that if a man dies intestate, the Crown cannot seize his effects.

No. 28, 30, and 31 confirm that the Crown may not take a man’s property without payment.

No. 32 confirms that the Crown may not freeze or otherwise control a convicted felon’s assets for more than a year and a day.

No. 35 confirms standards in weights and measures.

No. 36 and 40 confirm that the Crown may not deny, delay, or sell justice.

No. 38 confirms that no man may be tried on the basis of hearsay or without the evidence of independent witnesses.

No. 42 confirms the free right of movement into and out of the country.

No. 45 confirms that only men who know and observe the law may be appointed to enforce or decide it.

Each one of these is tremendously important and not a function or product of circumstances limited to 1215. How many of them, I wonder, has the current government infringed?

A British constitution?

 indolence  Comments Off on A British constitution?
Jun 072009
 

In the wake of the recent shenanigans in Westminster, there has been renewed speculation about whether or not Britain ought to have a written constitution like the US does, codifying individual rights (and, if you’re Gordon Brown, duties) in contradistinction to the state. I’d link, but I can’t remember where I read most of the speculation.

At present, whilst Britain has a constitution, it is a mixture of ancient and modern charters, common law based largely upon precedent, and legislation. Certain rights are defined in Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights of 1689, and of course these days in the European Charter of Human Rights, Britain’s participation in which David Cameron has said he would repeal. The question, then, is whether Britain ought to have a single, all-encompassing document that sets out the rights of the citizen, the responsibilities and powers of the state, and defines the nature of the relationship between the two.

In my own opinion, the answer is no.

If one uses the US constitution as a basis for judgment, one runs into problems immediately. The first, and most obvious, is that the existence of such a document does not in any way guarantee against its infringement or selective interpretation. There are many schools of thought in the US about the purpose, place, and meaning of the constitution, ranging from the strict constructionist, the Founders’ intent, all the way to the ‘living document.’ The fact that there is a document – a particularly clear and well-composed one, I might add – has not stopped anybody from reading his or her own wishes, intentions, and prejudices into its text. Even if Britain were to generate for itself such a constitution, endless wranglings over its necessary ambiguity would result in there being no clearer understanding of rights (and/or responsibilities) than already exists.

It is also the case in the US that the provisions of the constitution are routinely, one might even say ritually, infringed. There has never been a point in history at which the liberties outlined therein have been available to all Americans at all times. Politicians are very good at coming up with reasons and justifications, however spurious and transparent, for circumventing, withdrawing, or otherwise ignoring the protections set out in the constitution. I see no reason to suppose a British constitution would be immune to similar manipulation.

If one reads the Federalist and anti-Federalist Papers, one discovers that there were concerns even at the time the American constitution was drafted about the wisdom of setting out rights and liberties in a universal document. Whilst it is important to note that one of the motivating factors behind the creation of the constitution was to eliminate ambiguity regarding traditional liberties – ambiguity that, under the prevailing British system, had resulted in the suppression of a number of freedoms to which the American colonists believed they were entitled – a large contingent at the constitutional convention was wary of codifying any rights. The anti-Federalists were worried that, in setting out the rights of individuals, a constitution would limit individuals only to those rights, and prevent people from claiming those traditional liberties which had never been legally stated but had always been understood to exist. Their worry turns out to have been true: as the constitution is interpreted in the US today, an American citizen possesses only those rights which are detailed in the first ten amendments to the constitution, and no others. Right to property is conspicuously absent. To codify a constitution in Britain would lead, more than likely, to the same problem.

Then, naturally, one must consider who would be writing the British constitution. The organisation of the British polity would seem to demand that this be undertaken by the Government, which undertakes all other matters generally, whether by use of executive privilege or its majority in the House of Commons. A Government-composed constitution would naturally result in a highly-politicised, fad-filled document reminiscent of the European Charter of Human Rights, which includes absurdities like the right to an education and the right to healthcare. Many of the ‘rights’ described therein can only be guaranteed and provided by a collective entity – the state – at the expense of others. What it would come down to is a pitting of right against right, liberty against liberty, entitlement against entitlement, wherein your right to your property is overridden by my right to healthcare, just to name an example. A true constitution would include as rights or liberties only those things which are universal to all people at all times, and thus do not conflict with one another. Call me sceptical, but I doubt that any British Government of whatever party would produce anything of the sort.

One must also consider the issue of parliamentary sovereignty. Even if such a document were to be produced and ratified, one parliament cannot bind future parliaments – unless that traditional convention were to be specifically negated in the new constitution. Given the current disagreement about the Lisbon Treaty, I’m not sure that the binding of future parliaments is a precedent that ought to be set, let alone codified in a constitution. It is a distinct advantage and disadvantage of the British system that change in laws and institutions can occur quickly and without warning; take away that ability to institute the good and eliminate the bad, and one ends up with a petrified, moribund system like the US has, where even necessary change is slow to take place and the checks and balances on each and every branch of government mean that very little growth and evolution are possible. This works in the US because we’re used to it – it’s always been that way – and because the original system was conceived of and implemented by men who were steeped in Enlightenment thought and truly wished to create a polity whose values and operation would be acceptable to all people at all times. So far, they have been more or less successful. But I consider it very unlikely that any constitution the British government produces would have this aim in mind, much less achieve it, and thus I think it very unwise of the British people to bind themselves to a document of the times and the prevailing political and social mentality.

In the ratification process of the American constitution, the federal system meant that a majority of the legislatures in a majority of states had to agree to provisions and amendments before they could take effect; this condition prevented the social and political attitudes of particular regions or population groupings (urban v. rural, for example) holding sway over the entire nation. The aim was, of course, to ensure that only those proposals which were demonstrably acceptable to the vast majority of the population were implemented. Britain does not have a federal system. Will a putative constitution need to be ratified by a majority of councillors in a majority of county councils? Will it need to be ratified by the regional assemblies of Wales and Scotland? How is it possible to ensure that such a constitution truly is acceptable to the majority of the British population? How would such a constitution be reconciled with the principles of devolution that have become so popular? A strong central government could certainly impose a constitution on the populace without taking into account the wishes of particular regions or localities, but if a constitution is imposed on the people without their manifest consent, whence does it derive its legitimacy?

All of these problems suggest to me, at least, that any attempt to codify a constitution in this country would be an absolute shambles, if not an outright disaster. The current system is cumbersome, inconvenient, draughty, and malleable, but I consider all of those things preferable to a political philosophy imposed from the top down that will by any reasonable assumption be hideously illiberal, fashionable, asphyxiating – and ignored when convenient anyway. I will leave it to others to speculate on what a British constitution might or ought to say.

UPDATE: Errata here.