Sunday, 30 November 2008

Men of Honour

Just as educated Indians often preserve standards of English grammar and diction that would make a native Brit sound pedantic or even archaic, so it would seem that old-fashioned notions of public accountability and honour recognisable from pre-war England also survive in the Subcontinent. Thus today we learn that India's Home Secretary and national security adviser have resigned in the face of widespread concern over the Bombay massacre. I've no idea whether they are personally at fault for any mistakes that may have been made in handling the situation; doubtless blame will be apportioned following an inquiry. But it's remarkable that the ministers didn't wait for any official process before accepting responsibility. What a contrast to events in Britain, where the government has persistently refused to allow a full public inquiry into the terrorist bombings of July 2005, and our own pitiful Home Secretary actively seeks to disclaim any responsibility for the actions of an increasingly politicised police.

A ministerial resignation such as those in India is virtually unimaginable here. I wonder why. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 29 November 2008

The Police and the State

It comes to something when David Blunkett starts saying that the police have gone over the top. But it must be true - it says so in the Guardian:

Drawing a parallel with police behaviour in the cash-for-honours affair, in which a former Downing Street aide was arrested in a dawn raid, he spoke of "the danger of overkill, of treating every case as though we are dealing with a suspicious character".

Some somersaulting here, methinks. Here's part of an article Bruce Anderson wrote for the Independent more than four years ago when Blunkett was Home Secretary:

The other day, in a much publicised case, a respectable citizen was stopped on the Embankment in London and threatened with imprisonment for possessing a pen-knife and a collapsible baton. He had the baton - legally - because he lives in a rural area which, like much of the British countryside, is a police-free zone.

The operation which led to his arrest was an anti-terrorist exercise. So he inquired whether the police might be wiser to concentrate on those of Arab appearance. He was informed that he was making a racist comment. Thus is common sense stigmatised as racism. Shortly afterwards, he was being told: "You're f***ing nicked, you a*******".

Later on, he was assaulted in a police station. In this disgraceful incident, the worst elements of politically correct policing were reinforcing the worst elements of the old-fashioned canteen culture. The result was slovenly, offensive, idle and malevolent policing, which is why public confidence in the police has never been lower. I am sure that the vast majority of policemen are still admirable human beings, who put on their uniforms to serve the public and who relish the opportunity to do so. But this cannot happen as long as they are not well led.

So how does David Blunkett respond? By passing more laws which will require more paperwork, more form filling; more senior officers on the phone to the Home Office, trying to find out what they ought to be doing: more senior officers away at conferences: more ambitious young officers deciding that the route to promotion does not lie in catching criminals but in becoming a jobsworth, a pen pusher and a jargon peddler.

David Blunkett's measures would also make it much easier for the police to harass law-abiding citizens. Adultery apart, Mr Blunkett has never been a friend of the liberty of the subject. He does not seem to understand that the purpose of a police force is to catch and deter criminals, in order to enlarge the freedom of the rest of us - not to poke their nose into our behaviour, while the criminals are unimpeded. As the Tory spokesman David Cameron said recently, if Mr Blunkett has his way "Britain will be a police state, without the police".

So what has changed for Blunkett to produce such indignation now? It's because it's Parliament, stupid. Damian Green may belong to the opposition, but when the supercharged police come after someone doing no more or no less than any half-way decent opposition politician does, even someone of Blunkett's denuded sensibilities starts getting worried. After all, it was him once - and Gordon Brown, not forgetting Winston Churchill. Perhaps I'm being slightly unfair. In his day David Blunkett seemed like the ultimate New Labour hard man, but despite all the laws Anderson was complaining about in retrospect he was probably the least objectionable of this government's five home secretaries. Which is, of course, not saying much. Gosh, he even had a sensible policy about cannabis. Needless to say, that couldn't last.

It's about the police, really, this Damian Green story, isn't it? Awful though this government's record is on civil liberties, I doubt even Gordon Brown at his misanthropic worst ever really imagined that an elected MP, a front-bench spokesman and a notably mild-mannered one at that, could be arrested and held for nine hours, see his office ransacked and a lifetime of intimate correspondence with his wife combed through by a crack team of the Yard's finest. And for eight of those nine hours Green was apparently sitting in a cell waiting for the police to get round to interviewing him. That's standard police psychology, you see. Keep them waiting, let them sweat, show the low-life criminal scum who's boss. A cynic might even imagine that they enjoy it.

As politics, even as the actions of a government eeking out its last dregs of decadence and unelectability (the short-lived "Brown Bounce" notwithstanding) this makes no sense. As Matthew Parris, among others, points out, this current row has the look of a PR disaster for Labour. It plays into concerns about the politicisation of the police and the bully-boy tactics of New Labour. It looks, plausibly, like the sort of thing that Gordon "Stalin" Brown would do. Even if he didn't.

Certainly, the home secretary at least should have been informed that the arrest was imminent: and if she had been, it's quite likely that she would have prevented it. I doubt even Jackboots is stupid enough not to have realised how badly it would play, what an open goal it has provided for the Tories. If government ministers weren't informed, though, it was presumably because they didn't want to be. I would guess that when the police were called in, Smith made clear that, for reasons of preserving appearances, the operation be kept at arms length from ministers. This, of course, has now blown up in their faces.

This is not to say, necessarily, that the arrest is bad news for Labour. A few days of bad publicity - terrible publicity, even - but unless there's proof out there that Jacqui Smith is lying it will go away. What may not go away is the "chill factor" within government departments at the over-the-top way in which this particular whistle-blower/Tory plant has been treated. If the next civil servant with a potentially embarrassing dossier thinks better of leaking it to the press or an MP then the ability of Parliament and journalists to hold the government to account - not great at the best of times - will be further damaged. Which is good news for a government whose competence is likely to be one of the main issues of the next election (assuming there is one).

But this will be an unintended consequence of the original decision to get tough on this one civil servant, and may have happened even if Green had not been arrested. Will other MPs - backbenchers, perhaps, including independent-minded Labour mavericks - also feel the chill? Our Jacqui has always been a prominent exponent of the politics of "sending a message". The police raid on an Opposition spokesman may prove to have been a singularly effective message. Possibly, just possibly, it will be the opposite. We can but hope.

In retrospect, Conservatives were rather too caught up in the partisan mood at the time of the cash-for-honours enquiry to see it for what it was. Of course, any wrongdoing had to be investigated, and it was right for the police, under the indefatigable John Yates, to pursue the matter with diligence. And there is a huge difference between the police investigating the government and the police investigating the opposition: the first serves as a demonstration that no-one is above the law; the second looks like the tactics of a police state.

Nevertheless, there were several disquieting features of that enquiry. There was, most notoriously, the dawn swoop on Ruth Turner, who was at best a minor player doing others' bidding. She was subjected to severe indignities - though nothing like so bad as those visited upon the Milton Keynes journalist Sally Murrer, the case against whom was coincidentally thrown out yesterday. So too, in a lesser degree, was Lord Levy, whose status as Tony Blair's tennis partner made his predicament seem so delicious at the time. In both cases, the police resorted to stunt arrests and strong-arm tactics where a courteous interview - as was accorded to Blair himself - would have sufficed. It was a sign that an out-of-control police, drunk on their frightening new powers, no longer saw the difference between dangerous criminality and political sharp-practice. Or if they did see the difference, deliberately decided to ignore it.

One of the most controversial aspects of the raid has been that it was "counter-terrorist" officers who raided Green's home and office. "Counter-terrorist" officers, that is, who - you'd think - were supposed to be countering terrorism. Well, there's an explanation, of sorts. It turns out that the Met's counter-terrorism squad included officers from what used to be called the Special Branch. It was decided, when units were merged and reorganised some time ago, that the most appropriate name for the department specialising in organised crime, terrorism, security issues and anything of a "sensitive" nature was "counter-terrorism". That, at least, was what they were saying on Radio 4 last night. So it was a purely procedural thing, nothing to see here, stop worrying.

Well, er... I personally find it very worrying that functions previously performed by Special Branch have been swept up into a shiny new counter-terrorism department. Because language matters. If the police investigating a "crime" are styled counter-terrorist police, if - just as importantly - the powers they are exercising were sold to Parliament (and the public) as necessary for dealing with the "unprecedented terrorist threat", then it follows that whatever the counter-terrorist police investigate is terrorism. Or at least that it comes to be looked at in the same way as terrorism. Anyone who has been paying attention this past decade can point to well-known abuses of terror-laws: Walter Wolfgang, the "bollocks to Blair" T-shirts, the woman arrested for reading out a list of war-dead, environmental protesters, the councils snooping on ordinary families. Are these things "terrorism"? Well, they are things that anti-terror police investigate and anti-terror laws are used to suppress, so I suppose they must be. We are all terrorists now.

How this came to be is a long story, and it doesn't start with New Labour - though under this government the trends towards the lavish extension of state powers has proceeded more rapidly than almost anyone could have predicted. And New Labour have added elements all their own - the diversion of police resources onto essentially political matters such as "community cohesion", the love of "eye-catching initiatives", the culture of spins and leaks which ensures that when officers stage a pre-dawn raid press photographers just happen to be in the area, the asinine pursuit of targets and so on. Above all, New Labour have brought a certain mood - one that places appearance above reality, careerism above public service - that has ineluctibly rubbed off onto the police. It is not that Britain has become a police state; rather, the police have begun to act as though it is. A subtle difference, and one perhaps lost on those who have been at the receiving end of police presumption.

The political cosiness between the ousted commissioner Sir Ian Blair and New Labour has been one of the great scandals of our age, and so blatant that some immediately suspected that he was behind the arrest of Damian Green - which took place on his last day in office - perhaps as a final thank-you present to his patrons. One that turned out to be anything but, of course - but Blair, though intensely political, has never been an astute politician. I don't believe it; but it is telling that anyone could.

They never apologise, these bureaucratic coppers. Just yesterday we were reminded of the horrific ordeal suffered by Ms Murrer, a fifty-year old ordinary mother with a disabled son, at the hands of the friendly, well-intentioned public servants of Thames Valley police. Her private conversations were bugged. She was arrested three times, held for 30 hours in an unsanitary cell and strip-searched. The police "told her that she had committed a very serious offence and that she could go to prison for the rest of her life", reports the Press Gazette. She was treated in a manner reminscent of a third world dictatorship for revealing confidential information about, among other things, the police's case against a brawling footballer. Her police informant suffered a stroke.

After 18 months of hell, the case finally reached court. The judge - reluctantly, it would seem - threw it out on the grounds that the police had breached her human rights, and that the European convention protected journalistic confidentiality. Fairly damning - surely heads should roll. But not a bit of it. In a statement, Thames Valley defended their investigation as "proportionate", claiming that they had behaved "entirely properly". They were "disappointed" by the outcome of the case.

At least Murrer is still alive, I suppose. Unlike Jean Charles de Menezes, the inquest into whose brutal execution-style killing will soon reach its conclusion. The inquest has produced scores of revelations, many deeply troubling. Not just the expected incompetence, but contradictory and misleading testimony, and, most troubling of all for me, the news that as a matter of procedure under "Operation Kratos", the legally required pre-shot warning was only to be given after the decision had been taken to kill the suspect. This from the officer who shot Mr De Menezes seven times in the head, while he was restrained and entirely unthreatening, and given in his own defence. Was Operation Kratos ever debated in Parliament? Does it have any legal justification? In the age of Robocop, does it need any?

It's tragic this, truly gut-wrenchingly tragic. For me - predisposed to support the police, to believe in the myth of the friendly bobby and the long-standing reality (and it was a reality) of a public service which, for all its faults, saw its primary duty pursuing criminals - it's scarcely credible. But it's not just me, of course: ordinary, law-abiding people throughout the country no longer believe that the police are on their side. The trust between police and public which was built up over almost two hundred years has been practically destroyed in a decade. And now even some of those responsible for this parlous state of affairs, like David Blunkett, have seen where it can lead. So no, the police aren't the armed wing of New Labour. It's just that their interests so often coincide, it can be hard to tell them apart.
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Friday, 28 November 2008

Another Country

Someone must have been telling lies about Damian G, because one day, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested by the police.

It was a bright, cold day in November, and the clocks were striking fourteen...

. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 27 November 2008

What price freedom?

Spyblog has a very relevant question:

Why is it that our politicians, both in the UK and in the rest of Europe, seem to be so weak, that they have allowed themselves to be manipulated by the terrorist threat, and vested securocrat interests, to weaken our fundamental freedoms and liberties, without any noticeable gain in actual security?

Part of the answer may lie in a report on "the effects of counter-terrorism legislation on the freedom of the media in Europe", which is available in pdf format. It's quite long, but full of fascinating details - and, unusually, compares the situation across several different countries. We may imagine that New Labour has a particular fetish for thought-control mass surveillance, if only because Jacqui Smith seems so thrilled every time she announces some new outrage. In reality, virtually every government in the western world is at it.

The report - carried out, strangely enough, at the behest of the Council of Europe - places much of the blame for this on international organisations, especially the UN, the EU and the CoE itself - all of which, of course, are more or less beyond democratic control. The author, Privacy International's David Banisar, argues that "many international agreements either ignore or only pay scant attention to fundamental human rights and the importance of a free media." The UN Security Council in particular has overlooked human rights principles when drafting proposals that are then turned into national laws following a cosmetic and largely fictional process of consultation and parliamentary debate. The EU's love of harmonisation has also worked in favour of increasing the scope of restrictions.

Banisar writes,

New laws on prohibiting speech that is considered "extremist" or supporting of terrorism have been a particular problem. These laws are used in many jurisdictions to suppress political and controversial speech. Newspapers have been closed and journalists arrested. Web sites are often taken down or blocked.

Laws supposedly aimed at terrorists have been deployed against journalists and photographers. The tradition of journalistic confidentiality is ignored. Newsrooms have been searched. Then there are the surveillance powers and, more recently, the move towards data retention on a massive scale. Britain's version of this is likely to be a mega-database of every phone-call, internet search and text message - although this has been shelved to allow Gordon Brown to concentrate on winning the election saving the economy. "Controls on these powers" he writes "are often insufficient." Indeed.

Banisar also points out that in introducing so many draconian restrictions European governments are ignoring their own commitments:

In 2005 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe issued a “Declaration on freedom of expression and information in the media in the context of the fight against terrorism”. The Declaration called on member states to respect media rights and to not unnecessarily introduce new restrictions on freedom of expression and information; to not treat journalists’ reporting of terrorism as supporting of it; to ensure access to information, scenes of acts, and judicial proceedings; to protect their sources; and not to pressure them.

In 2007 the Ministers issued further guidelines on “protecting freedom of expression in times of crisis”, including terrorist attacks. The guidelines remind governments of their obligations to ensure that journalists have access to information; that sources and information
gathered should not be revealed or seized; that public access to information should not be limited; and that “vague terms” such as incitement should not be used to limit freedom of expression and should be clearly defined.

These two instruments set out a baseline that CoE member states should be following. It is the finding of this study that those guidelines have not been respected by all nations.

There's also this quote from former UN secretary general Kofi Annan: We are seeing an increasing use of what I call the ‘T-word’ – terrorism – to demonise political opponents, to throttle freedom of speech and the press, and to delegitimise legitimate political grievances.

Of course, no-one would suggest that such a thing happened in Britain.

On the role of the UN, Banisar notes that the Security Council has "been long criticised by human rights groups, academics, state governments and even UN officials for focusing on adopting legislation and paying little or no attention to the human rights effects of the legislation, ignoring obvious human rights concerns and failing to raise the issue with member states." The process began with the international reaction to 9/11. Then "in September 2005, following the London bombings, the Security Council issued a non-binding resolution proposed by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair which expanded the restrictions on speech". While subsequent resolutions by the essentially toothless Human Rights Commission have redressed the balance somewhat, "many observers still remain concerned that an imbalance remains with the human rights protections limited to mostly general or declaratory statements while legal obligations which affect human rights are more specifically set out."

The Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism (2005) introduced by the Council of Europe bans not just incitement but also "public provocation". Moreover, it contains clauses relating to extradition, which cannot be refused "on the sole ground that it concerns a political offence or an offence connected with a political offence or an offence inspired by political motives." Banisar notes that Russia, a CoE member, has "enthusiastically embraced" the convention.

On the EU, we discover (not entirely to our surprise) that

the process under which various instruments have been adopted has generally been non-transparent. The European Union has been extremely active under the 3rd Pillar (Justice and Home Affairs) in the promoting of enhanced law enforcement powers to fight crime and terrorism which is not subject to the same controls and Parliamentary oversight as other areas of EU activity.

Perhaps most disturbing is what the report calls "a significant trend in the increased use of state secret laws to penalise whistle-blowers and journalists who publish information of public interest." There are several examples given of journalists being arrested or prosecuted for publishing politically embarrassing stories - including the arrest of ITN's Neil Garrett, who revealed police efforts to mislead the public over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Internet censorship, blocking and filtering also comes under Banisar's gaze. I was particularly amazed to learn that in Finland, "a law adopted in 2006 that was supposed to only cover child pornography has already been used to block a site that was critical of the government body that is in charge of it".

Overall, the impression given is that the history, traditions and political set-up in the various countries have less influence that might be expected. "Even historically human rights friendly nations have been adopting excessive and disproportionate legislation," writes Banisar. Thus laws against "glorification of terrorism" have been introduced in the UK, Russia, Lithuania and Andorra (!). Russia and Turkey would seem to be generally the worst offenders, as might be expected, but there have also been worrying developments (arrests of journalists, intrusive surveillance) in places as seemingly benign as Switzerland and Denmark.

In too many cases, says Banisar

The legislation and policies adopted are disproportionate and appear to be used in
abusive ways not to protect public safety and the nation but rather the political interests of governments...

The international bodies have developed unbalanced instruments that do not adequately ensure that human rights are protected. In part, that is because some of the worst national governments are the strongest supporters of expansive international instruments to justify their domestic abuses. The Commission and Council of the European Union have been especially deficient in ensuring that human rights are respected in their proposals relating to anti-terrorism and communications privacy. The Council of Europe’s efforts on anti-terrorism and cyber-crime are not noteworthy for inclusion of human rights concerns either.

He concludes with the wish that "the Council of Europe should take leadership of a pro-human rights effort to ensure that national governments and international bodies are respecting human
rights." Well, we can hope. But to return to Spyblog's question, why are the politicians so "weak" when it comes to defending values like free speech? Have they "allowed themselves to be manipulated"? Or do they gain genuince political advantage by acting tough? After all, the "hard-working families" who "play by the rules" don't suffer from all these restrictions, do they? Most of the time, perhaps not. But the nightmarish surveillance society now being constructed, with its ID cards, its databases, its suffocating conformity - leave your bin out ten minutes early and we'll fine you, we've got the cameras - isn't just for us. Even Jacqui Smith, once she leaves office, will have to live in it. There is, perhaps, a crumb of comfort in such thoughts.
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Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Trumping Gods

The game of God Trumps has proved a big hit over at New Humanist. Devised by Christina Martin and illustrated by Martin Rowson, it pits some of the main religions against each other in several categories such as age, wealth, "daffiest doctrine" and how easily offended they are. The point of the latter, of course, is that taking offence has become one of the primary means by which religions assert their power in the world today. I would have added a category for clothes - which would have handed an easy victory to the Catholics (and, by the way, as any fule kno the Catholics' weapon of choice is holy water. Or possibly thumbscrews). But, still, brilliant. Have a look at them all (when you've finished reading this, of course).

All tremendous fun, but at the risk of being accused of taking a joke too seriously (as I was over my very popular John Sargeant post) it seems to me that it does also capture an essential if politically incorrect truth about the world's religions - which is that, at some deep level, they really do hate each other. They're very polite about it, of course - these days, it's all couched in the cuddly language of mutual understanding and respect. And they're quite happy to join forces against the manifold evils of secularism and demand respect for each other's symbols. They share many common truths, like a hatred of women and gay people and a belief that most things are best decided by men in robes. But the alliance is largely a tactical one, prompted by the need to retain market share in what is - at least in the developed world - a declining market. The impulse that produced the Crusades and the wars of religion is still active.

Take our old friend Pope Ratzinger. In recent weeks, he has entertained a high-powered group of fatwa-merchants in the Vatican - an encounter that led to a communiqué which promised, among other things, "a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations". And perhaps other matters of common interest - sexuality, blasphemy, lawmaking - might eventually come within the remit of such a committee. Point 7 of the communiqué stressed the idea common front against the enemy of secularism:

As Catholic and Muslim believers, we are aware of the summons and imperative to bear witness to the transcendent dimension of life, through a spirituality nourished by prayer, in a world which is becoming more and more secularized and materialistic.

Yet what's this? The New York Times reports that Ratzinger believes that inter-religious dialogue is "impossible". In a letter printed in an Italian newspaper - addressed to a politician who has written a book about the importance of Europe's Christian heritage, one of the pope's personal hobby-horses -

the pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.”

Reuters' Tom Heneghan thinks that Ratzinger was merely being Germanically pedantic in his choice of words. Like Humpty Dumpty, when the pontiff uses a word it means what he wants it to mean, and dialogue, in the "strict sense", refers to a process intended to produce agreement. You can't have dialogue if there's no possibility of agreement - of the Muslims accepting the divinity of Jesus Christ, for example, or Catholics re-orienting their churches to face Mecca.

But Haneghan is being equally Humptyish by insisting that Ratzo's use of words merely reflects professorial desire for precision. Because, of course, he is really saying something rather significant. What he's saying, and saying very definitively, is a reassertion of the idea that the religions of the world are not, after all, essentially the same. The John Lennon position, if you like, that what the great teachers taught was true but then along came the priests and the theologians and introduced unnecessary qualifications. As Haneghan goes on to make clear:

He’s not starry-eyed about interreligious dialogue, especially with Muslims, because he thinks it can lead to a blurring of the very distinctions he’s trying to make. Deep down, he also thinks Christians ultimately can’t discuss theology with Muslims because their views of God are too different.

He's right, of course. It never ceases to amaze me that the pope is expected to be some sort of spokesman for inter-religious harmony. That's not his job. His job is to defend and protect Christianity in general and the Roman Catholic version of Christianity in particular, to assert the church's age old claim that it alone has the truth, the means of salvation and the keys of the kingdom of heaven. In a less mad world we would be surprised if the pope did not express the view that all other religions were falsehoods. Even Ratzinger doesn't go quite that far, of course, only reserving that level of scorn for Protestant churches. In his famous speech at the University of Regensberg a couple of years ago the pope wondered what good Islam had brought to the world: a fair enough question, I'd have thought, for someone who is professionally bound to assert that Jesus represented God's most significant message to the human race. Yet he was excoriated, not merely by the usual rowdies who thought he had "insulted Islam" but by moderates on all sides - even agnostics - who thought that he was being unhelpful to the great cause of inter-religious understanding.

Why is it so widely believed - by religious and non-religious people alike - that religions ought to get along? After all, no-one expects Israel and Syria to get along, or Microsoft and Apple. Two reasons, I think. Firstly, because the major religions, despite their radically differing beliefs, have been subject to a process of convergent evolution. Only in their early days, or on their margins, have they been engaged in cut-throat competition for believers: in most places, at most times, there has been a prevailing religion, and whether it is Islam, Christianity or Buddhism it has provided the focus for both spiritual life and moral conservatism. Spirituality and "family values" morality are constants of human life, which do not disappear (despite appearances) even in societies that are avowedly secular. So when the major religions sit down and chat they will find they have a lot in common, and imagine that these similarities are shared truths about religion, rather than universal truths about the human condition.

The second reason lies in the religious impulse towards "oneness". Most religions have at their core some sort of mystical experience, in which the mystic feels a union with the cosmos. At a more institutional level, most religions emphasise such things as the community of believers, the omnipotence and transcendence of God or the universal applicability of the ethical teachings. Some sects - the Jehovah's Witnesses, for example - positively revel in their minority status and gleefully anticipate that anyone who doesn't join them will go to Hell. Almost by definition, however, such groups do not become majority religions. So you're left with a group of major religions that are predisposed to believe that unity is a desirable or attainable goal.

Yet if religions are all basically the same, then why should anyone believe in the truths of one in particular? It is the details that religions do not share - the Bible, the Koran, the teachings of Buddha - that give authority to the teachings that they proclaim that are shared by all religions, and serve to explain the spiritual experiences that are the common currency of humanity. I'm not in the religion business myself, of course, but if I were I think I'd advise a spirited game of God Trumps over feel-good inter-religious cosiness every time.
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Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Labour: New, Old - or just Same Old?

Is New Labour dead? A lot of people seem to think it is. Some mourn its passing - or imagine that it would never have happened under Tony. Others, just as predictably, are celebrating. Polly Toynbee, for one:

The New Labour era is over - welcome to social democracy. Following in Obama's footsteps, it is suddenly safe to tax the rich and spend to protect jobs....Now we can see both parties naked as nature intended, and at last comfortable in their own skins.

It depends, I suppose, what you imagine New Labour was. If you mean the media-manipulating, bullying, authoritarian bulldozer, then it is still very much alive, and probably worse than ever. If you mean the party of big business, of cosy deals with international financiers, of yacht-based diplomacy - well, I'm willing to bet that's still going strong too. Vast sums of money have been given to the bankers, most of whom will not be forgoing their bonuses. If you mean the prudent party of low taxation, conservative economics and the free market that Tony Blair successfully sold to a befuddled electorate in 1997 and twice thereafter - that is dead, yes, but only because it never actually lived. It was a mirage, which disguised the profligate reality of vast public waste, the multiplication of non-jobs, the stealth taxes which destroyed Britain's pensions, the ratcheting up of duties, the creative accountancy of private finance initiatives, the feather-bedding of parasitical quangocrats.

What has changed with Alistair Darling's statement yesterday? The reality has not changed: yes, there is more borrowing, much more. Some of it is unavoidable, some of it - bringing forward capital projects to ease the shock to the labour market - may turn out to be beneficial, some of it, such as the VAT cut, will have little effect of total spending (though it may help some retailers survive the recession). But all of it is a continuation of the last eight years. It represents a foot placed on the accelerator, perhaps a shifting of gear - but certainly not a handbrake turn. The direction of travel remains the same. Perhaps the chancellor's most telling comment was the hope to return - perhaps as early as 2016 - to "borrowing to invest". No talk of budgets one day being balanced, no suggestion that any part of the massive national debt will be paid off in due course.

If anything, yesterday's statement was rather more conservative than the spending splurge that it brings to an end. The national debt might be set to double, but spending will be squeezed. Except in language, this scarcely represents a repudiation of the New Labour years and a return to Keynesian economics. But here's the paradox: the language of "prudence" coincided with years of financial irresponsibility; ditching that language is now to accompany a programme that, while not exactly prudent, is not incontinent either; it serves to make the government appear to be doing more than it really is.

We have been living, these past few years, in a very strange world of mirrors, in which the government has managed to convince many people - well, commentators mainly - who really ought to know better that it was something different from what it actually was. By speaking a conservative-inflected language, it persuaded conservatives (and even some Conservatives) that its aims and methods were conservative. And by sidelining traditional socialists it told them that they were internal exiles. But their disgruntlement was part of the story. Thus the holding of the higher rate of income tax to 40% - however little this mattered when set against the manipulation of National Insurance - sufficiently annoyed left-wingers that it made New Labour appear to be a continuation of Thatcherism by other means. Now, the introduction of a new tax band of 45% cheers the Polly Toynbees by letting them imagine the government now hates the rich. That, too, is an illusion: the money raised, after all, will be, when set against the total debt, negligible. But it "sends a message".

By occupying the centre ground, New Labour implied that the centre was a fixed point - while in reality it was a floating island tacking violently to the left. By emphasising prudence, it disguised prodigality. Even as the state remorselessly extended its domain - and the number of its employees - it cultivated the idea of frugality. Tony Blair looked and sounded like a right-winger when he was actually a statist authoritarian. Gordon Brown looked - and so was accounted - cautious and trustworthy. As a spectacle of legerdemain, New Labour was unprecedented. Today, as the mask slips and Labour politicians show themselves - because it now seems expedient to do so - in their true tax, borrow and spend colours, the talk of the return of Old Labour reveals just how much some people were - still are - taken in by the myth of New Labour.

Yet just a few weeks ago it was not the ditching, but the resurrection, of New Labour that was the talk of the town. The old rogue Mandelson, returned to the bosom of his old department of state, was once more thrilling reporters. Tony Blair himself, it was none too subtly leaked, had advised Mandy to accept Gordon's offer. The other old rogue Alastair Campbell is now once more offering his advice - though from a position of (very) comfortable independence. Derek Draper - Derek Draper, for heaven's sake, a man recently seen on TV declining a snack dipped in a breastmilk sourcream sauce - has been getting in on the act. The talk then was of the old troupers burying their past disagreements, throwing in their lot with Gordon Brown. No more Blairite coups: Brown was what he had been in the past, the intellectual heart and soul of New Labour.

Even then it was clear that the recession was approaching and the closer it approached the worse it began to look. This would be, few doubted, the defining story of the next few years, and Gordon Brown's selling point was his experience, his supposed competence and imagined international respect. Thus was born the "no time for a novice" attack on David Cameron (and, by implication, his younger rivals within the Labour party). Continuity of personnel, change of tactics: that's what was being offered to the country - and as Labour's poll ratings began to recover from the slump (though less than might perhaps be expected, at least to judge from the media reports) the strategy appeared to be bearing fruit. But this offer is just another mirage: what appears to be change disguised as continuity is in reality continuity disguised as change.

Bring back Old Labour? They've never been away; indeed, they got us into this mess. Just because they've stopped trying to hide doesn't mean we should be pleased to see them.
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Monday, 24 November 2008

Sarah's People

Alistair Darling's mini-budget is hard to avoid today, and the size of the projected deficit is just too scary. So here's something to take your mind off it: an ad that was splashed across the US networks by a group calling itself Our Country Deserves Better PAC. Just some ordinary folks who want to tell the world how much they love Sarah Palin. Sweet.

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Sunday, 23 November 2008

Baby P and the Facebook Furies

Saturday's Mail was incandescent with rage. "Final Insult", screamed the headline, pointing to the story that the mother of Baby Peter might, on release, be given a new identity, at the cost of "millions of pounds of taxpayers' money". Said the report:

Amid the widespread public revulsion at the case, lawyers will use human rights legislation to claim that the 27-year-old's life is at risk.

They are believed to be already drawing up a list of demands to ensure that she receives permanent 'protection' from the public.

It would involve a new home, name and round-the-clock police protection for the woman.

In addition, it is likely that her legal team will request a lifelong court order - banning anyone from identifying her or her whereabouts.

Two of the three adults implicated in the death - Peter's mother and her boyfriend - are supposed to be anonymous anyway, although this would seem to be a temporary consequence of an ongoing court-case. (I see no need to join in the injunction-baiting game of "name and shame". I shall call them, for simplicity's sake, Man B and Woman C.) But of course their names - and photographs - have been freely circulating on Facebook groups, messageboards and blogs for well over a week now, usually accompanied by strongly-worded desires for said individuals to burn in hell and suggestions as to how that final journey might be facilitated. There is, then, a strong prima facie case that the three might indeed be in danger were they to be released, even many years hence, without arrangements being made for their safety. This being the case, it is the obvious duty of the state to provide for their long-term security. That is what it is there for.

We live, or are supposed to, under the law. Parliament lays down maximum and sometimes minimum penalties for crimes, which are then imposed by judges acting on behalf of society. These do not include capital punishment - still less, capital punishment exacted by self-appointed and self-righteous thugs whipped into a frenzy of hatred by the commercial imperatives of tabloid newspapers. The law exists, among other things, to protect society from criminals - and in a democracy there is a legitimate place for debate about the form that protection shall take. But in a culture that has any pretensions to being civilised the law also exists to protect criminals from society.

The law is not, and never has been, an instrument of private vengeance; in fact, it is the opposite. Primitive or decayed societies are governed not by criminal law but by blood-feuds and vendettas, with the resulting crude cycles of retribution. In an advanced society, by contrast, the state finds and punishes offenders on behalf of the community, and it is by limiting punishment within civilised bounds that it helps to preserve the social fabric. When that social fabric breaks down - when it is no longer the law that fulfils the retributive function of justice - then the space vacated is often filled by gangsterism, lynchings, mob rule and other manifestations of anarchy. It happened in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when shootings and kneecappings were often what passed for justice within the segregated communities. It happens still in no-go areas in inner cities. It is always and everwhere a sign of failure.

The Biblical principle of lex talionis - "an eye for an eye" - is often seen as embodying a primitive form of retaliation. Originally, though,it implied a restriction on disproportionate vengefulness. Since human society began there has been a tension between the instinctive desire for excessive punishment and the greater good of punitive restraint. It is a mark of civilisation that punishment should not always fit the crime - if only because some crimes would seem to require punishment so extreme - if it "fit" - that society as a whole would be barbarised by their implementation.

A culture that exhibits excessive retribution is one that has not achieved, or has lost, a sense of evolved morality. We rightly hold up Saudi Arabia, with its floggings and amputations, as an example of what happens when law becomes ossified into obedience to an outmoded text. A recent, horrifying case was reported from Somalia in which a 13 year old girl, accused of "immorality" (it seems she had been raped, but it scarcely matters) was stoned to death by a bunch of crazed Islamic militants convinced that they were upholding divine justice. A thousand people stood by and watched. Is there really so much difference between her murderers and the Facebook vigilantes getting off on dreaming up novel ways to torture Woman C? The self-righteousness is the same, the lynch-mob mentality is the same, the ignorance of the actual facts is the same.

One of the first stories in the Bible concerns the rights of a murderer. After Cain murdered his brother Abel, the tale goes, he was exiled to the land of Nod; but along with exile came protection. Although with Abel dead there was presumably no-one else to worry about (besides Adam and Eve, that is) Genesis records that Cain was anxious even then about people taking the law into their own hands:

And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; ...and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond upon the earth; and it shall come to pass that everyone that findeth me shall slay me.

To which the Lord (who was no doubt familiar with the intricacies of the Human Rights Act) had the following reassurance to offer:

And the Lord said to him, Therefore whoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

Later on in the Old Testament, of course, God has no problem with ordaining all sorts of punishments which we might today find excessive, such as the stoning to death of disobedient children, the killing of persons collecting sticks on the sabbath or of animals who have had the misfortune to have been buggered. But the original point still stands: when God says "Vengeance is mine" (Deuteronomy 32:35) he is claiming a monopoly of violence; in a theocratic polity such as ancient Israel, this is equivalent to an insistence on due process of law.

Nor was Yahweh alone in his desire to override the ancient rights of vengeance in the greater interest of community cohesion. In Aeschylus' Eumenides there is a dialogue between the goddess Athena and the Furies, who have been pursuing and tormenting the matricide Orestes as was their immemorial wont. These ancient spirits present the classic argument of vigilantes that they are the custodians of natural law. When called upon to give evidence in court, they protest that they are not troubled by legal niceties, since their morality is older than any legal system. "You wish to be considered righteous, but not to act with justice," retorts Athena. But for the Furies, as for the Facebook vigilantes, the law is inadequate:

If this legal action triumphs,
if now this matricide prevails,
then newly set divine decrees
will overthrow all order.
Mortals will at once believe
that everything's permitted.
From now on parents can expect
repeated blows of suffering
inflicted by their children—
now and in time yet to come.

It reads almost like a Daily Mail editorial.

There are, of course, many people who knew baby Peter and whose emotion is real and raw: the Sun, contradicting earlier claims, reported on Saturday that his funeral was well-attended. But most of those on Facebook working themselves into paroxysms of rage over what they have read are expressing an essentially fake emotion. Few, of course, would present any real danger to Woman C on her release: it is enough for their sense of self-righteousness and sentimentality to fantasise online about torturing her to death. Yet we have had instances before in recent history of anti-paedophile campaigns where a mob rises to a pitch of hysteria on the rumour that a child abuser has moved into an area. Even if it turns out to have been a paediatrician. There have been deaths - evants often inaccurately described as the perpetrator "taking the law into their own hands". It is not the law, but lawlessness, that vigilantes take into their own hands. Once upon a time, it would have been "witches".

The Mail report mentions that Maxine Carr, whose former boyfriend Ian Huntley murdered two little girls in 2002, has had to be moved at least 11 times since her release from prison. She played no part in the murders, which occured while she was 100 miles away, and it seems not unlikely that her abusive lover coerced her into lying on his behalf. Such subtleties were however lost on newspapers such as the Sun, which cynically stoked up a hate campaign against her and then had the temerity to complain about the cost of her protection.

The popular press, with its sensationalising and sentimentalising of every distressing case, bears the heaviest responsibility for this ugly and atavistic culture of vigilantism. Its coverage of Baby Peter has been virtually pornographic in its lingering upon every horrific detail of the child's suffering. In portraying the adults involved as simplistic avatars of evil they have done little to explain, or give any sense of, what might actually have occured. I have no desire to excuse or minimise the enormity of what happened; but then I simply don't know what happened. Neither did the jury, who failed to convict anyone of murder. The most detailed reports - found, it need hardly be said, in the News of the World - rely on the testimony of a fifteen year-old girl who was the live-in girlfriend of one of the accused, Owen. Her testimony places the blame squarely on Man B. (Today, "Mary chillingly reveals how she SHUDDERED as Baby P was taught to perform Nazi salutes by his tattooed Hitler-loving skinhead stepfather.") Yet Man B was not found guilty of murder.

Be that as it may, the law, however humanly flawed and inadequate, must be allowed to take its course. The alternative is the anarchy of mob-rule - something which much of the coverage seems designed to elicit - if only to provide another story. Tabloid indulgence in the mentality of the lynch mob fits into a pattern of populist anti-law journalism that goes back at least two decades. The judges, according to this analysis, are always "liberal", sentences invariably too soft, human rights are for offenders and come at the expense of victims and ordinary taxpayers, politicians aren't doing enough, prison is cushy and lawyers are overpaid.

In recent years - and especially since the rise of New Labour - this anti-justice campaign has been joined and exploited by politicians. There has been a continuous rhetoric of crackdowns, of "naming and shaming" (amid stiff competition, perhaps New Labour's favourite soundbite) of "re-balancing" and "getting tough", a constant invocation of victims as arbiters or touchstones of morality. Some of the most unattractive features of American criminal process have been copied. The result has been, among other things, the largest prison population in Europe (yet not the lowest crime-rate) accompanied by an increased public awareness of (and therefore fear of) the extremes of violent criminality. Media-obsessed politicians have played on fears of youth-disorder to turn adults against children and pathologise perfectly normal (if sometimes inconvenient) aspects of growing up. They have played shamelessly to the most base and unreflective elements of society - elements which, in their arrogant and isolated liberal redoubts, they presumably regard as typical of "ordinary people".

Early on in Labour's term of office the then Home Secretary Jack Straw led the condemnation of an author who had written a book about Mary Bell who, as a child (but in a much less hysterical climate) had killed a baby and spent her adolescence in correctional institutions. The notion that Mary Bell - a troubled, abused child herself when she committed her juvenile crime - might have an interesting and relevant story to tell about the roots of evil was lost on press and politicians alike, who acted as though there were actual virtue in the perpetuation of ignorance. This disgraceful episode has set the pattern for more than a decade of competition between the Right-wing press and a Left-wing government as to who can most successfully undermine the foundations of a civilised society. So far, I'd say New Labour are just ahead. They, after all, have the power.

How do they justify it? Perhaps along the lines suggested in this passage by Aeschylus, to whom I shall leave the last word:

But these Furies also have their function.
That's something we just cannot set aside.
So if they fail to triumph in this case,
they'll spread their poisonous resentment—
it will seep underground, infecting us,
bring perpetual disease upon our land,
something we can't bear. So stands the case.
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Friday, 21 November 2008

Catholic Church "forgives" Lennon

The Heresiarch is pleased to learn that the Vatican has offically pardoned John Lennon for saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Even if it hasn't. What has happened, reports the Telegraph, is that the statelet's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano had marked the 40th anniversary of the White Album with a celebratory article. "The talent of Lennon and the other Beatles gave us some of the best pages in modern pop music," it enthuses.

L'Osservatore, the report notes, "has recently tried to shake off its stuffy image" -Indeed: this blog has periodically drawn attention to items that debuted in the Vatican journal on such subjects as UFOs, Harry Potter and a politically correct updating of the Seven Deadly Sins. And how better to show you're down with the youth by patronising what it called "an English working-class lad struggling to cope with unexpected success". Especially one who's been safely dead for almost 30 years.

Official pardon? Well I doubt Pope Benedict - more of a Mozart fan - had much to do with it. Lennon was after all part of the Sixties, the decade in which the youngish Joseph Ratzinger gradually turned from a snappily-dressed theological moderate - he played a prominent role in the Second Vatican Council - into the counter-reformation throwback we know and love today.

Still, the story does give an opportunity to have another look at Lennon's statement, from an Evening Standard interview he gave in 1966:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first - rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.

Forty-two years on, Christianity has certainly continued to shrink in Britain; but then so have music sales, so I'd say the race is still on. In other public comments about religion, Lennon frequently expressed a naive universalism that is quintessentially hippyish, but also recalls Karen Armstrong. Here's another of his insightful pensées:

I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It's just that the translations have gone wrong.

I wonder what gave him that idea. I wonder what gives anyone that idea. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Television's twilight

The BBC is pleased to report that, a few years ahead of planned analogue switch-off, the UK has one of the highest densities of digital TV in Europe: at least where the household's main set is involved:

Digital television is spreading faster in Britain than in France, Canada, the US, Germany, Italy and Japan, according to UK communications regulator Ofcom.

Research suggests that 86% of homes in Britain can now receive digital on their main set, while 30% have digital video recorders.

Ofcom itself was almost breathless in its press release. "UK consumers are blazing the way when it comes to embracing the digital TV age", it enthused.

Of course, that still leaves a great number of analogue sets relegated to kitchens or bedrooms, many of which will be incapable of receiving digital signals - even via a set-top box - because they rely on portable aerials. When analogue signals are confiscated, great will be the indignation among those suddenly faced with a blank screen. Some will resent the cost of upgrading their equipment; others may decide to cut their losses and do something useful with their evenings instead, like blogging. It may be relevant that another finding of Ofcom's International Communications Market Report was that Britain is now second only to the US when it comes to average weekly internet use - 14 hours per person. Not excessively high, perhaps, considering there are some people who would seem to do little else.

What it doesn't say is why the UK is "blazing a trail", at least when it comes to digital TV. A successful advertising campaign, perhaps? Or is it just that the public have been driven to satellite television or Freeview because the main terrestrial channels no longer offer much worth watching?

More channels do not, of course, mean more high-quality TV shows. At most, the effect of a multitude of "choice" is to spread the cream thin - and ensure that half the time you'll only find out about a programme you would have watched once you've missed it. That's my experience, at any rate. Most of the many channels, most of the time, will be filled with rubbish - but since even rubbish, even repeated rubbish, costs money to broadcast more is likely to mean worse. A depressingly high proportion of the channels available on Freeview offer shopping or rigged competitions anyway. Is it really worth all the trouble?

The BBC has been struggling to hold its own - and will struggle to maintain its licence fee - in this new digital world where there is both more available to watch and less incentive to do so, with audiences continuing to fall off in real terms as well as in market share. Increasing numbers of viewers will scarcely avail themselves of BBC services at all. As it is, the strong-arm tactics of the TV Licensing authority - threats of court action repeatedly delivered to households that have no television at all - are being highlighted in the Daily Telegraph, whose former editor Charles Moore recently promised to stop paying his in protest at the vast salary paid to Jonathan Ross. The Sunday Times reported that he is unlikely to be prosecuted. The BBC don't want to create martyrs, allegedly - and certainly not high-profile ones.

The Telegraph's reporter Alex Singleton failed to persuade TV Licensing to show him the inside - or even the outside - of one of their famous (and famously elusive) detector vans. I wonder why. I well remember the day when someone told me they didn't actually exist. I would have been around sixteen. It was one of those penny-dropping moments similar to finding out that there's no Santa Claus, or how babies are made. I've no proof, of course, that (as Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance is quoted in the report) that the vans are just a myth used "to frighten people". But no one who isn't connected with the BBC or TV Licensing ever seems to see one. There ought to be a way of finding out the truth - although Singleton reveals that the authority has refused to answer a Freedom of Information request about the vans on the grounds that "if the number of vans was known, public perception of their usefulness would be undermined". Which is quite a striking admission in itself.

The behaviour of enforcement officers - who are apparently paid by commission - also leaves something to be desired:

In 2005, a visiting officer was convicted of assault against an Ormskirk resident who claimed he did not need a licence and started filming the officer. Two months ago an officer was convicted in Maidstone Crown Court of perverting the course of justice and four charges of false accounting after he fabricated confessions by four members of the public whom he hadn’t even visited, echoing an almost identical earlier case in Wales.

The peasants are at last beginning to revolt, one feels.

Meanwhile, in another straw in the wind, the Telegraph is reporting that the rules of Strictly Come Dancing are being re-written to give the judges more power. Starting next series if the judges give one of the couples bottom marks three weeks in a row they're out - no matter how popular they are with the public. Call it the Sergeant rule: never again will the ordinary punters have the final veto over who stays or who goes. They don't like democracy very much, do they? People's right to vote is to be tolerated, but only so far as they do what they're supposed to.

It reminds me rather of the constitution of Iran, where the Islamic Council of Guardians has the final say on who is allowed to stand in elections. Result: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
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Wednesday, 19 November 2008

John Sergeant and the Death of Democracy

There's no doubt what today's most significant news story has been. Not Prime Minister's Questions, not piracy on the high seas, not Jacqui Smith's incoherent policy on prostitution, but John Sergeant's unexpected exit from Strictly Come Dancing. You think I'm being facetious? Yes, it's only a game show. Yet his continued attempts to dance not only delighted audiences (which was, after all, the point) at a time when we could all do with some innocent delight, his survival also represented a rare (if entirely fictitious) example of public opinion prevailing over the wishes of a powerful elite, in this case the judges. Week after week they impotently implored the audience to "vote for the dancing". Week after week the viewers cocked them a snook. It was glorious: almost, but not quite, enough to banish memories of the Ross/Brand debacle. A parody of democracy it may have been - or even a substitute for democracy - but the premature end of Sergeant's dance ambition is a sad day nonetheless.

By pulling out now, John Sergeant may not have let himself down, but he has let the country down; his exit has been, as he predicted on one episode of the show, a "defeat for democracy". He has shown contempt for the people who supported him. He has preferred to listen to the whinging of his fellow competitors, and to the judges. Like them, he has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the competition. Of course it's not a dance competition; it's no more about dancing than the Eurovision song contest is about songs. It's an entertainment show: and Sergeant was the primary entertainment.

In fact, he provided at least two levels of entertainment. First was the sight of him trying, but failing, to outdo Fred Astaire. Some people had cattily suggested that Sergeant had not tried quite so hard as some of the other competitors. But as Tommy Cooper knew, and Boris Johnson still does, it takes real talent to bumble with style. It isn't even fair to suggest that the public was voting for Sergeant because he was bad; because he wasn't bad at what he was doing, he was very good indeed. It's just that what he was doing was not dancing; no, what he was doing brilliantly was Strictly Come Dancing.

The best entertainment, however, came later, on the faces of the judges as they delivered their verdicts and suggested, begged and ultimately demanded that John be dismissed. And the more they protested that the public should vote for the best dancer, the more the public enjoyed winding them up. Indeed, a survey earlier this week revealed that more than half of the 40% of the audience voting for the former political correspondent were doing so to annoy the judges.

This may in fact be what prompted Sergeant to "resign": as he himself explained, there was a "serious danger" that he might win, rather than some more deserving, but infinitely more forgettable, contestant. It may have been embarrassment, or a desire to reclaim the moral high ground. Or perhaps he was simply bored, or had other commitments. But for a man of his fundamentally benign disposition it must have been distressing to be an object of resentment and disapproval. Sergeant denied he was the victim of bullying. But he must have been hurt if it is true that - as the Times reported at the weekend - he was shunned by fellow competitors: "none of the performers milling on the dance floor to commiserate with and embrace [Cherie] Lunghi would make eye-contact with Sergeant, who wandered aimlessly among them."

In the judges' despair and Sergeant's popularity can be detected the elitist's fear and mistrust of the mob. In public life today, politicians are keen to give away power, to palm off responsibility onto unelected quangoes and committees or upwards to Brussels or the IMF, to appeal to supposedly objective science. For to decide questions in a manner that is politically accountable is to allow the public to have a voice. And except in questions of "law and order", where public prejudices may to a limited extent be indulged, this is to go against the grain of a governing class that assumes it knows what is right and that public opinion is there primarily to be manipulated. A fear that is always expressed whenever a referendum is proposed - on the Lisbon treaty, for example - is that the people will not vote on the right basis. Their votes will be swayed by the unpopularity of the government rather than the obvious benefits of greater European integration, perhaps. So too with Strictly Come Dancing, where Sergeant's popularity (think the judges) should count for less than the nimbleness of his footwork. "If someone really deserving gets knocked out because they like you it makes a nonsense of the show", said one of the judges, Len Goodman.

Strictly come off it. The public's alleged wrong-headedness was scarcely objectionable, or indeed perverse. Quite the contrary. The "expert" judges may believe that the best dancers should win; but the viewers, by voting for John Sergeant, were exercising their preference for being entertained: and what is light entertainment for other than entertaining? I don't normally watch shows like Strictly Come Dancing. I didn't watch any of the previous series, any more than I watch X Factor or I'm a Celebrity... I did, however, tune in to watch George Galloway doing his cat impression and losing what shreds (if any) of political credibility he still enjoyed on that peerless series of Celebrity Big Brother; and, alerted by the coverage of his gormlessness, I have been sitting down in recent weeks to watch Sergeant pretending to dance. I will not be watching again, not in protest at Sergeant's unexpected departure, but simply because without his good-natured clowning there will be nothing worthwhile to watch.

The public understood the nature of the programme even if the contestants didn't - or claimed not to. Celebrities enter these shows, of course, not to "win" but in the hope of boosting flagging careers or assuring themselves that they remain terribly important and/or loved. In Sergeant's case, I suspect that a desire to live out the dream he once cherished of being a comedian was high up there. It was once famously said (a quote sometimes attributed to Jay Leno) that politics is show business for ugly people; the same presumably goes for political journalism, in which looks have generally been a disadvantage. It is, perhaps, a comment on the decadence of our age and the crisis in our politics that a man who has spent a distinguished career reporting on great public events should become far more famous, in retirement, for his dancing inability. But since it was widely reported at the time of the last general election that more people had voted for the winner of Big Brother than for the Labour Party it can scarcely be regarded as surprising.

And what of the undoubted desire on the part of the voting public to annoy the judges? Is it possible to detect in it the merest whiff of revolution - a revolt against the constant admonitions to which we are subjected by self-appointed or government-appointed experts? The well-meaning judges on Strictly Come Dancing thought they knew what was good for us: it was good for us to watch high-quality dance routines, it was morally correct to vote for the best performance, it was morally dubious to vote for the worst performance, it was unfair on the other contestants who were "trying their best". Being nannyishly instructed not to vote for John Sergeant, like being instructed to drink less, to exercise more or to consume an arbitrarily determined quota of five portions of vegetables each day must after a while become tiresome. And, let it not be forgotten, by picking up the phone and dialling a premium-rate number people were helping to fund the enterprise.

Which of course was the point. For if the judges and the other contestants were unimpressed with Sergeant's continued presence on the show, the same can hardly be said for those who, above them, had an eye on the ratings. They will be filled with gloom - especially if, as seems likely, ratings now begin to fall. Many were switching on the TV primarily to watch John Sergeant and may now stop watching in protest or sympathy. For my part, I do not know about, or care about, any of the other contestants: as to which of each pair is the "celebrity" and which the professional dancer I am happy to remain ignorant. Sergeant was, in any case, the only moderately famous person left in the show. In a few weeks' time one of the dance couples left on the show will "win" and will be swiftly forgotten. John Seargeant's Paso Doble, on the other hand, has already secured its place in televisual history.

Don't blame the judges and the contestants for not getting it. They, too, live in this society; they, too, are confronted at every turn by experts who are given authority to decide, on the basis of scientific evidence or, just as often, of fashion, what the rest of us shall be permitted to do. Or, increasingly, even to think. That the public should have the audacity to spurn the judges' expertise (although it scarcely required years of judging experience to notice that Sergeant was not the love-child of Krishna and Terpsichore) goes against the grain. Of course, the public shall have what the public want - so long as it is bread and circuses. Anything else is best left to the experts.

UPDATE: Someone else who doesn't get it (unsurprisingly, perhaps) is Hazel Blears, who is quoted in the Mail as follows:

John Sergeant jumped at just the right moment. Otherwise the joke would have turned sour quite quickly and there would have been a massive backlash against him.

No, Hazel, there wouldn't. But then Blears is precisely the type of nanny-knows-best politician the judges were subconsciously aping. She should be careful. As the Mail also reports (and I predicted) the BBC is now facing a public backlash and the show risks losing viewers. Worms can turn.
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Monday, 17 November 2008

Tony Blair: keeping up the God work

Last week an article by Tony Blair appeared in the International Herald Tribune praising a "multi-faith" gathering convened by the King of Saudi Arabia at the UN. Actually, I'm not entirely sure Blair wrote it. He certainly never wrote any of the many articles that appeared under his by-line when he was Prime Minister (a good number were the work of Alistair Campbell, although at times even Campbell had better things to do). Old habits may well have died hard. On the other hand, he is as we all know intensely committed to the whole faith thing, and the sentiments expressed sound authentically Blairite, so for the purposes of argument I shall assume he had at least a hand in drafting it. In any case, it gives some indication of the way TB's thoughts have been developing (or not) since he left public office.

Most of those attending King Abdullah's confererence were, of course, too polite to point out that he presides over a country with minimal human rights (especially for female humans, or non-Saudi-humans, and particularly non-Muslim humans), a country which, almost uniquely, bans all other religions, in which foreign workers cannot even publicly celebrate Christmas. King Abudullah has been widely praised for his initiative, not least by Blair himself who describes it as "bold, courageous and potentially far-reaching" (love that "potentially") - although the article does admit that he's "the leader of a nation that critics say has been slow to modernize". The IHT itself chose the title "King Abdullah and the skeptics" which might be a moral fable or one of the less celebrated tales of the Arabian Nights: certainly it is set in that fantastic land of make-believe that might be termed Blairabia.

For one thing, the inter-faith conference, ground-breaking as it allegedly was, has been overshadowed by the rather more important conference that the king has also been attending concerning the global financial situation. That's Gordon's stuff, of course, and therein may lie the rub. Just as Blair gave way to Brown, so an international landscape defined by "faith" - or, rather, by the polarity between Islam and the West (if we may speak in such broad-brush terms, which of course we should not) has given way to one dominated by the less high-flown realities of economics. Tony Blair's passionate advocacy of his and others' inter-faith initiatives has been driven by a sense that the world's religious fault-lines will define the possibilities of conflict and reconciliation in the 21st century. So, in the wake of 9/11 and the war on "terror", it appeared. As recently as this May, in a speech to launch his Faith Foundation, Blair put it like this:

If faith becomes a countervailing force, pulling people apart, it becomes destructive and dangerous. If, by contrast, it becomes an instrument of peaceful co-existence, teaching people to live with difference, to treat diversity as a strength, to respect "the other", then Faith becomes an important part of making the 21st Century work. It enriches, it informs, it provides a common basis of values and belief for people to get along together.

No doubt Tony Blair still sees things this way. In his more lucid moments, though, I wonder if he might just be having second thoughts about his concentration on faith.

The argument he sets forth in the IHT is about Islam, a subject in which he plainly considers himself to be an expert. Possibly all that Koran-reading he used to boast about yielded results. According to Blair, there are only two "narratives" in the "Muslim world" - which means, presumably, there are only two types of Muslim. "There is not a series of different trouble spots or issues that require disconnected focus and action," he claims. "There is essentially one struggle, with two sides."

On that basis, all the manifold troubles of more than a billion people - all their joys and personal struggles, too, as well as their political imperatives - can be resolved into a simple binary opposition. No need, then, to look at the particular circumstances of any given situation: the tribalism which underpins the Christian-Muslim split in parts of Africa, for example, or the long-running grievances, based on post-colonial boundary-drawing in Kashmir, or the ancient and convoluted histories of central Asia, or the intractable Israel-Palestine problem, or anything else that involves "Muslims". No, it's all really simple - it's about two sorts of Muslim, two interpretations of Islam.

Firstly, there's the sort of Muslim whose attitude to the West is one of anger and defiance, who wants to build a wall around the Islamic World. Such people "loudly declare that Islam has gone wrong precisely because its leadership has been prepared to work with the West, or because the West has sought to impose its values on Muslim societies." They believe that Islam and the West are "two distinct cultures and civilizations in opposition to each other." They decry supposed western double standards, and their arguments are "falsely enhanced by a sense that the West has lost touch with basic moral values."

Then there are the ones who desire peaceful coexistence. Their view is also "absolutely founded in Islam"; they do not "desire to replicate Western society". This "outward looking and peaceful" interpretation of Islam "needs our support".

It is the proponents of this modern narrative who want to use the Middle East's wealth to support a politics and culture in tune with the 21st century. They seek to draw on Islam's core belief in education as a means of ensuring that their people are enabled to become a distinctive part of the 21st century world but not distinct from it. And they point to a millennium of Islamic history, from Spain to China, which illustrates Muslim co-existence and acceptance of other faith communities.

Except that this group shares "concerns of a moral nature" with the first lot. Indeed, looked at closely the opposition between these two positions would seem to be of degree rather than of kind. Both look first of all to religion as the basis of society; both think that the problems of the 21st century can best be solved by peering into a 1400 year old text. Both look at the Western world and see immorality and decadence. Both look at many conflicts in diverse parts of the world and see them all as expressions of religious difference first and foremost. They differ only in that the first lot belive that Islam should prevail over non-believers while the other believe that the non-believers should graciously be allowed to exist.

Despite the typically Blairite construction of two groups subsisting in Manichaean opposition, what we seem to have here is various flavours of Islamist. Indeed, it's far from clear on what side of the line some well-known public figures are to be found. Tariq Ramadan, for example, with his background in the Muslim Brotherhood and his warm talk of co-existence, can plausibly be placed in both camps. This may just because he is a slippery customer. But then consider Yusuf al Qaradawi, whose alarming views on Jews and suicide bombing did so much to endear him to the greatly-missed Ken Livingstone (and about whose views on women or homosexuality Ken preserved so stoical and diplomatic a silence). He, too, was once looked upon as one of those seeking multi-faith harmony, although more recently he has been banned from Britain as an undesirable influence. Confusing. It must be especially confusing to Tony Blair given his preference for clear-cut distinctions.

What unites these two groups (if they even exist) is what they share with Tony Blair himself: a stunningly oversimplified view of the world, a belief that most of what causes upheaval and dissatisfaction has its roots in theological misunderstandings, and a desire to propose neat solutions. What is completely lacking is any sort of secular perspective - or an acknowledgement that there are other forces shaping international and internal conflict for which religion is, most of the time, just an excuse. Yet until a generation ago the politics of much of the Muslim world - and its physical appearance - was not dominated by religion to anything like the extent it is now. Blair's characterisation of Muslim debate describes, at most, the current ascendency of political Islam. But it also represents something rather less enlightened than Blair might want to admit; it belongs to the long history of Westerners making patronising and simplistic assumptions about other civilisations. Would he, I wonder, seek to characterise the political and social landscape of Europe in such stark terms? Knowing Blair, perhaps he would.
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Sunday, 16 November 2008

About time too

After several weeks of worrying silence, during which time Gordon Brown was able to pose as saviour of the world financial system, improving his position in the opinion polls, George Osborne has at last come out fighting. In an interview with the Times on Saturday, he drew attention to the perilous position of the currency, as the national credit comes increasingly to resemble that of Iceland or Northern Rock. "The more you borrow as a government the more you have to sell that debt and the less attractive your currency seems," he commented. "Sterling has devalued rapidly against the euro and the dollar. We are in danger, if the Government is not careful, of having a proper sterling collapse, a run on the pound."

With the pound now at a record low against the Euro and a steadily falling against an also-weak dollar, this analysis can hardly be described as unduly alarmist. It seems more like a description of what is currently happening. Osborne's suggestion that Brown's policy is storing up trouble for a future Tory government also has a ring of plausibility. The boy George returned to the attack in the Sunday Telegraph, contrasting the talk of prudence with which Chancellor Brown used to be associated with his current willingness to borrow borrow borrow and spend spend spend:

Time and again he extolled the virtues of prudence, of setting responsible limits to borrowing, of the need for binding fiscal rules, and of creating a credible macroeconomic framework that would inspire international confidence in the British economy.

He told his party conference in 1997 that he had "learned from past mistakes", acknowledging that "you cannot spend your way out of recession". As recently as two years ago, Mr Brown was telling us solemnly that "to make unfunded promises, to play fast and loose with stability is a return to the bad old days". For a while he fooled almost everyone.

But today all that talk of prudence is over. As is true in life, so it's true in politics: the fundamental test of your values is not what you say when times are good, it's what you do when the going gets tough. It was easy for Mr Brown to talk tough on the public finances when the global economy was booming, even if he was racking up the biggest budget deficit in the developed world while other countries were using the good times to build up budget surpluses.

Fair comment - and about time too. The trouble is, most of the Tory leadership has been so keen to escape the ancient slur of being the "nasty party" of economic slash and burn that they have failed to offer anything in the way of fresh or coherent analysis. David Cameron's frequently heard promise to "share the proceeds of growth" only made sense if you first bought Gordon Brown's claim to have abolished "boom and bust". But such claims are always made during periods of growth, and always turn out to be wrong. Economic crises are like volcanoes - the longer the period of quiescence, the more shattering the eventual eruption.

The Tories' mistake was not to have failed publicly to predict the downturn - no-one likes an Eeyore - but to have failed to predict it in private. Their whole policy has been premised - like the government's - on everlasting growth. And there has been no Plan B. The opposition's considered response to the recession should have been prepared in advance; instead they have presented a display of cluelessness accompanied by desperate attempts at catch-up. No wonder their poll numbers have been slipping.

The response to Osborne's overdue intervention has been a classic piece of New Labour misdirection. Instead of answering - if they could answer - Osborne's points, they instead asserted that he was irresponsible to make them. Worse, he had broken an alleged convention that opposition spokesman do no "talk down the pound" in times of trouble. (Although if Gordon Brown's public calls for ever-lower interest rates don't amount to "talking down the pound" I'm not sure what does.) The BBC, as always, followed the government's spin-doctoring slavishly, devoting a full fifteen minutes of Saturday's PM to the "story". There was a real story that they could and should have been investigating - is Osborne right?

You can see why the Labour party doesn't want to enter the discussion: it would mean questioning the consensus that it is possible to spend and tax-cut out of this recession, and that the country is in a position to do so without bankrupting itself. If serious questions are asked about Gordon Brown's approach to this crisis, it risks exposing it for what it may be, a gigantic con trick. Far better to divert attention onto a fake story about George Osborne - who, whatever else one may say about him, has not taken us into this place of fiscal peril.

Less clear is why so many in the media - and even some in the Conservative party - have taken this tactic at face value. Osborne is undoubtedly vulnerable after a series of less-than-compelling performances, the yacht business, and rumblings from some inside the party that he should be replaced. The claim that he has poor judgement is thus going to find an audience. Yet it is not because of interventions such as this that he has become a target; on the contrary, it is because of the lack of them. He has appeared lately to be Gordon Brown's poodle.

In any case, the suggestion of unpatriotism is nonsensical. The Labour attack, moreover, inflates Osborne's importance, implying that his words can move markets. Otherwise, what reason could he have not to say it? It isn't as though he has any privileged information not available to the speculators. Those in control of international funds don't need Osborne to tell them what the figures mean. If Gordon Brown's profligacy with the public finances does indeed create a run on the pound, that will be the fault of his policies, not of Osborne's words. Chris Dillow has a rather more thoughtful criticism:

If I were he, I would not have said this. If we get a genuine run on the pound, Osborne will win even if he had not made this remark, as the fall will reflect discredit upon Labour’s economic record. But now, if we don’t get such a run, Osborne will be accused of being an immature hysteric with no grasp of economics.

It's true that if there isn't a (further) collapse in sterling, Osborne will end up looking as much of a prat as he did when he posed in his Bullingdon tails. But whether or not raising the question was political astute of George Osborne, it is important that someone is doing so. The idea that at a time like this the job of an opposition is to sit on its hands and support the government in the national interest - even so as not to unsettle the markets - is not only democratically questionable, it's also dangerous. Now more than ever it is essential for the opposition to ask searching questions, to subject the government's analysis to close scrutiny, and to put forward an alternative point of view.

And here I must again defer to Mr Dillow:

The days when governments could get away with borrowing heavily are coming to an end. In recent years, there has been heavy demand for gilts from overseas, as the Chinese have looked for places to invest their surplus savings, and oil exporters have invested their revenues. But this buying is already slowing down. And it could continue to do so. As the Chinese government budget slips from surplus to deficit, it will absorb some domestic savings. And lower oil prices will give middle eastern countries less to invest.

So although we’ve been able to borrow cheaply recently, we might not be able to continue to do so - especially if/when investors risk appetite returns and they sell safer assets such as government bonds. In this sense, Brown’s borrowing is indeed irresponsible, as it leaves future generations exposed to the risk of having to pay higher borrowing costs.

Coincidentally, there is a piece in today's Sunday Times about the future role of the monarchy under King Charles. The prince's confidant Jonathan Dimbleby reveals that "there are discreet moves afoot to redefine the future role of the sovereign so that it would allow King Charles III to speak out on matters of national and international importance in ways that at the moment would be unthinkable." A 21st century monarchy, it is suggested, could be more activist and take part in public controversies - more like the (elected) president of Ireland, perhaps. For one thing, Charles doesn't want his "knowledge and experience" to "go to waste". More significantly, though, Dimbleby writes (quoting the prince's "advisers"):

Prince Charles, they continue, would inherit a very different world from that bequeathed to his mother. Because the ideological chasms of the 20th century have been bridged, today’s politicians are driven to compete for power by packaging together marginally different varieties of the same produce as they scrabble for votes on the centre ground. It is thus virtually impossible to have any horizon beyond the next election. As a result, there is a vacuum of national leadership.

I would put it another way. It isn't that the ideological chasms have been bridged - far from it - but that today's politicians refuse to offer the public a proper choice by standing on different sides. Instead they jump from rock to rock tied to each other, terrified that they will be caught on the wrong side. There is, at any given moment, a near-consensus between the parties, but the nature of that consensus is subject to wild fluctuations. For the past few years, only extremists on the left questioned the free market - by which, of course, was meant a free-for-all in the banking industry. Lately it has seemed that only extremists on the right were prepared to question vast public debt. If George Osborne is at last prepared to break this stranglehold we should all be grateful.

Whether Brown is right, or the Conservatives are right, it is right to have a debate.
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Friday, 14 November 2008

Defending the Indefensible

My initial reaction to the news, reported by the Telegraph, that Prince Charles has renewed his determination to style himself "Defender of Faith" if and when he becomes king was a shrug. He can call himself Defender of Elves and Pixies if it makes him happy, I thought. At second glance it worries me profoundly. It summons up all that is most wrong-headed and dangerous about this most buffoonish and pointless of princes.

Comrade Cranmer, who got there before me, urges the queen to "nip this multi-faith profanity in the bud" before it is too late. Damian Thompson, meanwhile, is concerned that this move - "the Royal equivalent of replacing the word Christmas with Winterval" - will "help destroy our Christian identity". He notes that any formal change would require Parliamentary approval, no problem since "nothing would give Labour, Liberal Democrat and trendy Tory MPs greater satisfaction than to delegitimise Christianity in this fashion."

I see it rather differently. It is an attempt to make something out of nothing. Something potentially dangerous out of nothing very much. The move would, if successful, only serve to entrench the Establishment of the Church of England, rather as the desire to "inclusively" permit Muslim and Hindu schools has gone hand-in-hand with a much wider boom in Christian faith schools at the expense of non-denominational education. Or as some Anglican bishops hope that by offering places to some carefully-screened representatives of other faiths they can cling on to their anachronistic right to sit in the House of Lords.

Far from excluding non-Anglicans, as Prince Charles seems to think, the title Defender of the Faith excludes nobody - because it is no more than a constitutional fossil, of no more relevance than the title King of France which remained part of the English monarch's formal designation well into the eighteenth century. It is a reminder, to those few who take an interest in such things, not of what the monarch is, but of what the monarch used to be, in those dim and distant days when power was in the hands of kings rather than those of politicians and bankers. Queen Elizabeth II doesn't defend anyone or anything, except possibly her own job: constitutional monarchy is all about being rather than doing.

It is a century and a half since Bagehot described the monarchy as essentially "decorative" - and that was at a time when Queen Victoria still laboured under the delusion that what she said actually mattered. The present queen has no such constitutional blind-spot. She has preserved herself and her throne for almost sixty years by being as static and inscrutable as the mosaic of the empress Theodora in the church of San Vitale, Ravenna. Of course, there are areas in which ER has been active: horse-racing, for one. Many have speculated about her private views, and there was an awkward moment in the Eighties when one of her advisers improvidently let slip that she and Mrs Thatcher didn't always see eye to eye. By and large, though, she has kept her crown on straight.

Prince Charles, by contrast, has never understood that the fundamentally arbitrary and thus unaccountable nature of his position necessitates, above all, judicious silence. He thinks his various titles describe some sort of objective reality. For reasons lost in antiquity, among the styles attaching to his Royal Person is "Lord of the Isles", a happenstance that has in the past impelled him to don plaid and insist upon being filmed striding around the Western Isles communing with crofters. It was while handing out an architecture award more than twenty years ago when it occured to him that he must perforce be some sort of expert - otherwise why would these distinguished RIBA folks have asked him to "say a few words"? More dangerous has been his repeated championing of quack medicine, which may well have caused actual damage to people foolish enough to take his advice.

As to the title Defender of the Faith, which notoriously was bestowed by the pope upon Henry VIII just a few years before the king decided he wasn't so keen of defending the Catholic Church after all, it predates and has no connection with the monarch's role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. "Defender of Faith", by contrast, would be a new, consciously revised title, a statement of what its next incumbent believes the monarchy either is or ought to be. It would be, in other words, a job description. Charles doesn't simply want to be Defender of Faith (whatever that means), he wants to do Defender of Faith, to act, perhaps, like a crowned and sceptred Tony Blair, except that the "King Charles Faith Foundation" will be located in Buckingham Palace and carry with it the crown's ancient numinosity. Or perhaps he has another model in mind, that of the King of Saudi Arabia, who glories in the title Guardian of the Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina.

This "Defender of Faith" business surfaced around fifteen years ago during Charles's never-to-be-repeated interview with a fawning Jonathan Dimbleby (the programme also featured the crofter footage alluded to above). Why should the monarch just defend his Christian subjects? he wailed. What about his Muslim subjects? His Sikh subjects? His Zoroastrian subjects?

The Zoroastrians, unsurprisingly, were delighted that their ancient but numerically negligible faith was thus brought to a wider notice. And, to be fair, Zoroastrians probably are in need of defending rather more than, say, Roman Catholics or Muslims, who seem to be capable of looking after themselves. Elsewhere, though, the absurd image of Prince Charles charging around sword in hand looking for Zoroastrians to defend (and no doubt Yezidis and Mandaeans too) only added to the widespread impression of a royal personage charmingly but irretrievably out of touch with modern realities. The idea was quietly dropped - to be finished off for good, it seems, when the Archbeard himself said last year that both the title and the Christian nature of the coronation service should remain intact. But perhaps, as with his environmentalism or alternative medicine, Charles was simply ahead of the fashionable curve: wrong-headed maybe, but wrong-headed before his time.

For, as we never cease to hear, faith is increasingly relevant, increasingly unavoidable. Faith leaders are sought out by politicians, the BBC director general thinks it worth his while to devote an important speech to religious issues, religion has become a legally-privileged identity, it is held to be at the forefront in international affairs. Interfaith cosying-up, moreover, is all the rage, as well as being impeccably politically correct. Just last week a group of "leading Muslim scholars" went to the Vatican and agreed with the Catholics to set up a join committee to co-ordinate their response to global issues such as "defamation of religion". The Guardian of the Mosques has meanwhile been in New York, where according to Reuters he is "basking in praise" at the UN Interfaith Forum. Yes, indeed, the absolute ruler of the world's most primitive and savage religious tyranny "has attracted extravagant praise from, among others, Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, and Shimon Peres, the veteran Israeli president" for his "unprecedented and bold" initiative.

All of which, you'd think, would be excellent news for Prince Charles and his advisers. No longer indulging a quixotic whim to stick up for Parsees everywhere, he is like Tony Blair going where he thinks the action is. What could be more modern than to be soggily inclusive of "faith"? How 21st century! Of course, there's no indication of how, precisely, he would defend faith: not for him the freedom of action accorded to the King of the Desert. But no doubt he will find a way of using his Royal Influence on behalf of all manner of bearded reactionaries. He should beware. Multi-faith initiatives may be fashionable, and they may press various liberal buttons - they may seem progressive. But they are not. And far from bringing people together, for the new king to cloak himself in religious garb will be highly divisive.

For all the media chatter about religious identity, this remains a secular society in which a considerable proportion of the population is avowedly atheistic or agnostic and millions more merely indifferent. Secularists may not look to King Charles for protection, but by calling himself "Defender of Faith" he will be sending a message that he cares most about those of his subjects who are religious believers. And I sense that today's public indulgence of "faith" in all its forms may not last forever. Indeed, there may one day be a role for a Defender of Unfaith.
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