Wednesday, 31 December 2008

New Year, New Database

Predictions for the coming year are a tricky business (though "things will continue to get worse" would seem to be a fairly safe bet) but some things we can be fairly sure of. Such as the fact that nothing, but nothing, will deflect the government from its increasingly demented campaign to turn Britain into a nation-sized realisation of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon. One of several interlinked Home Office proposals is to spend up to (i.e. at least) 12 billion of our increasingly worthless pounds on a massive database containing details of everyone's phone-calls, browsing habits, emails and internet searches.

When the plans were dropped from the last Queen's Speech, the spin was that the government was slimming back its legislative programme in order to concentrate on tackling the global economic crisis. But a few days later Gordon Brown told the House of Commons that he had already "saved the world". So he will have no excuse not to continue the drive to know everything about everyone. And today's steer from the Home Office is that the database may be put to tender, as the Identity register has been, and sold off to the highest bidder. With appropriate "safeguards", in other words vague promises not to screw everything up and lose the data.

The proposal to sub-contract to a private company has several potential benefits for the government. They point to supposed cost-savings; the private sector is also supposed to have more expertise in the field. More to the point, I suspect, when something "goes wrong" and the data is compromised, ministers will have someone external to blame. That, surely, is the most worrying thing about the idea. But it is the principle of the mega-database, not its bureaucratic structure, that is most objectionable. If the government were to "back down" and accept full public control and accountability, some in the privacy lobby would consider it a victory of sorts. But it would still be monstrous, and it would still go wrong. These things invariably do.

In the Independent we learn that the plans have been condemned in forthright terms by the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg. He told the paper that the technology of surveillance was developing at "breakneck speed":

The retention and storing of data is delicate and must be highly protected from risk of abuse. We have already seen what a devastating and stigmatising effect losing files or publishing lists of names on the internet can have on the persons concerned. This is particularly relevant to the UK, where important private data has been lost and ended up in the public domain.

The Guardian's report had some even more pertinent quotes from the former Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald. He puts the matter thus:

The tendency of the state to seek ever more powers of surveillance over its citizens may be driven by protective zeal. But the notion of total security is a paranoid fantasy which would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. We must avoid surrendering our freedom as autonomous human beings to such an ugly future. We should make judgments that are compatible with our status as free people.

... no other country is considering such a drastic step. This database would be an unimaginable hell-house of personal private information. It would be a complete readout of every citizen's life in the most intimate and demeaning detail. No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls.

This isn't Macdonald's first foray into this territory. In the course of a speech marking his retirement in October, he warned that

We need to understand that it is in the nature of State power that decisions taken in the next few months and years about how the State may use these powers, and to what extent, are likely to be irreversible. They will be with us forever. And they in turn will be built upon.

So we should take very great care to imagine the world we are creating before we build it. We might end up living with something we can't bear.

Then and now, he speaks more as a fellow-citizen than as a public official or lawyer. I'm particularly struck by the philosophical tone of his remarks, his understanding that what government proposals imply is less a risk-benefit calculus in which privacy is weighed up against security, but a much larger question about the entire nature of the society in which we live. While the debate on pre-charge detention could be easily summed up as between individual liberties on the one hand and the protection of society on the other, mass surveillance schemes pose a real danger for everyone against a much less quantifiable security gain. For all the talk of terrorism data-retention is really about making life easier for the authorities and less spontaneous for everyone else. It would provide particularly easy pickings for police looking to boost their prosecution figures. The new extreme porn ban (coming in January) might be particularly tempting. First, find a foreign-hosted website offering "extreme porn" - Google makes that easy enough; then use the database to find out the names and addresses of everyone who has visited it. Hey presto, and that rather disappointing clear-up rate suddenly looks a lot healthier.

But the danger of such abuse of the system is as nothing compared to the psychological damage it would wreak. It would fundamentally invert the relationship between citizens and the state. Forget "nothing to hide, nothing to fear": in a world where there is nowhere to hide people will become terrified of even giving rise to the impression of non-conformity. Your actions, your friendhips, increasingly even your thoughts will be dominated by the knowledge that whatever you do they will be watching, evaluating, judging. Nor does this proposed database exist in isolation: it would be slightly less objectionable if it did. Added to all the other databases - the NHS spine, the Identity register, the children's ContactPoint database - and you have a life laid bare, vulnerable not only to official harassment for the slightest infraction but also to fraud and blackmail. The resulting sense of suffocation will surely be unbearable for all but the most sheep-like.

Technology makes all this possible: but because a thing is possible doesn't mean that it should happen. Another recent proposal is to fit speed-controlling devices into cars. Some people might like the sensation of not having to take responsibility for their own driving. But what an infinitely depressing future is at hand. A world in which rule-bending is not merely punishable but physically impossible is one from which all initiative has been stifled. Doubtless, to begin with, such devices will be "voluntary". But once they are fitted as standard to all new cars disinclination to make use of them will become suspicious in itself. And since speeding is such a terrible thing - everyone must agree with that - it would seem perverse to object to a device that makes it impossible, as perverse, perhaps, as not wearing a seatbelt.

I try not to succumb to paranoia, but New Labour really does seem to want to create a world of zombies, in which a cowed and befuddled population has forgotten - or never knew - what it was like to be free. My guess is that they just have a very low opinion of most of the population, and thus genuinely believe that people are incapable of managing their own lives. They are terrified of anything - such as the Internet - that appears to be beyond their control. And they are - as Ken Macdonald suggests - paranoid. Technology has put a fearsome weapon in their hands, one that promises to make life safer, more efficient, and less unpredictable than ever before. So it behoven on their opponents to put the case for danger, inefficiency and chaos: for human beings, that is, rather than machines.

With his legal expertise and unassailable Establishment credentials Sir Ken Macdonald strikes me as the ideal person to put that case.
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Tuesday, 30 December 2008

We have a grandmother

Some belated Christmas cheer. I notice the new Palin has hatched. And it's a Tripp. Tripp Easton Mitchell Johnston, to be precise. Nice to see that Bristol is keeping up the family tradition of "creative" name-choosing (my guess is that the rather more sedate Easton Mitchell came from boyfriend Levi "I'm a fecking redneck" Johnston). A nephew for Track and Trig. Perhaps the couple are fans of Star Trek: Enterprise. Or perhaps there's some rule that says males born into the Palin family have to have made-up names beginning with Tr. The next two will presumably be Trailer and Trash. Still, Tripp sounds rather like a hostage to fortune - especially given that the new dad is already looking forward to taking the tot hunting. Don't trip over the rifle, Tripp. No word on any marriage plans, as yet - although a few months ago it was widely rumoured that the happy event would take place in November, when the couple could have re-created the Arnofini portrait.

The docu-soap that is the Palins hasn't reached the conclusion that some expected in the aftermath of Ma Palin's drubbing at the hands of the US electorate. Sarah herself is gloriously undimmed and as unselfconscious as ever, and is no doubt even now giving Gordon Brown tips on how to save the world. And new characters are still entering the show. Last week it turned out that young Levi has a mother, Sherry, who has been arrested for drug-dealing. Fresh embarrassment? Not necessarily: it is also reported that bidding for the baby photo exclusive, which had been mired at the $100,000 dollar mark, tripled when it emerged that Tripp has two newsworthy grandmas. Apparently one of Sherry's text messages was intercepted by the police in October, when the Palin/McCain campain was at its most high-profile (and minutely scrutinised). "Hey, my phones are tapped and reporters and God knows who else is always following me and the family so no privacy. I will let u no when I can go for cof" it ran. "Cof" is a codename for OxyContin, apparently. Isn't it nice the way these Wasilla women stick up for each other? Still, at least Bristol and Levi won't be short of cash for nappies.

I expect the Palins will be delighted that, thanks to the excruciatingly slow American transition period, little Tripp has come into the world under the auspicious Bush presidency. But it's hard to be sure. Oddly, according to the report, "Mrs Palin's office declined to comment on what it called a family matter." Not even "Todd and Sarah are delighted that their beloved daughter has been safely delivered of a boy-child"? The Palin's couldn't be part of the People magazine exclusive, could they?

Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 29 December 2008

Blockading Gaza

Not being an Israel-Palestine afficianado, it may well be that I'm missing something. But it has often struck me as strange that in all the acres of coverage of the Gaza dispute there is almost never any mention of the border with Egypt.

Thus Israel is routinely criticised for blockading Gaza - and thus starving its inhabitants of vital supplies - yet the same criticism is rarely extended to Egypt which is at least as rigorous as Israel when it comes to keeping its side of the border closed. "Israel withdrew in 2005 but has kept tight control over access in and out of Gaza and its airspace," explains a report on the BBC website - glossing over the fact that Israel has no power to control access along the southern border with Egypt. If Gaza is cut off, it is cut off by both its neighbours, not just one.

Here's the Guardian, for another example:

We do not know how many civilians died in the assault which Israel launched on Hamas in Gaza at 11.30am on Saturday, because Israel prevents foreign journalists as well as Israeli ones from entering the strip.

That should be Israel AND EGYPT.

It was reported by the Press Association yesterday that Egyptian border guards had opened fire on Palestinians who were attempting to flee the Israeli assaults by crossing into Egypt. Which, considering that (we are told) that the inhabitants of Gaza were being blown to bits indiscriminately by the wicked Israelis, seems a little bit, well, disproportionate.

An Egyptian security official said there were at least five breaches along the nine-mile border and hundreds of Palestinian residents were pouring in. At least 300 Egyptian border guards have been rushed to the area to reseal the border, the official added on condition on anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.

You won't have heard this on story on the BBC, any more than you would hear it on the government-controlled Egyptian media. Why not? Hamas propaganda? Unlikely: even Hamas want to talk about it. Reuters quoted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as saying on Saturday, "The simplest response to the massacre today is to reopen Rafah crossing once and for all. I tell our Arab brothers that the simplest response to the massacre is to end the siege."

For the Israelis, the justification for keeping the border - much of the time - closed is security. No-one questions the fact that Hamas, since it came to power in Gaza, has turned the overcrowded statelet into a terrorist camp, firing rockets into Israeli territory on an almost daily basis. Their tactic resembles that of someone who, finding himself trapped in a cage with a fierce but generally lethargic lion, thinks it's a good idea to poke the beast repeatedly with a stick - and then complains loudly when the lion turns round and starts to bite. It is an idiotic tactic as well as a cynical one. Designed to provoke Israel to acts that can be portrayed in the western media as "disproportionate" and in the Arab world as murderous aggression, it is not what one that would make any sense if Hamas actually cared about the people of Gaza - or at least if it cared about them as much as it cares about destroying Israel.

But what of Egypt? What's their excuse for blockading Gaza? In many ways, they don't need one, because their blockade goes unreported. Unlike Israel, Egypt isn't subjected to daily barrages of Iranian-supplied rockets aimed at its civilian population. On the other hand, the Egyptian government clearly has no love of Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood which for several decades now has pursued its aim of taking over Egypt and turning it into an Islamic state. Perhaps they worry that if it allowed free access to and from the territory it would effectively become part of Egypt, and that they would be forced to deal with Hamas themselves. There's little doubt (though you won't hear them publicly admit the fact) that the Egyptian authorites were delighted to get shot of the place in 1967, just as the Israelis were almost four decades later when they pulled out in 2005. I expect they're also worried about immigration, and want to keep the Americans happy. All excellent reasons, no doubt. But I can find no such good explanation for the silence about these facts in the western media.

Is it, perhaps, that an Arab regime behaving badly simply isn't news? Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Seasonal Salutation

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Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Mahmoud

So, Channel 4 have hit upon the radical, headline- (and, they hope, ratings-) grabbing ploy of booking the eccentric Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deliver their "alternative" Christmas message.

I know that the Heresiarch prides himself on being a little ahead of the curve, but this is ridiculous. Heresy Corner brought its (in those early days) few readers Christmas Greetings from the Tehran-based philosopher more than a year ago.

Here's part of what he said on that occasion:

Today’s status quo of the world is obvious of everyone. In occupied Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and South America and even in Europe and North America, due to the interests of despotic dominant rulers’ parties and clans and also for filling up their pockets, the dignity, benevolence, peace and tranquility of the human beings have been taken to abattoir and slaughtered. And then, lie and deception are positioned for honesty and truth.

Frankly, if Jesus Christ – the Messiah (peace be upon Him) was present today, how would He react?

This year, apparently, he

Speaks about society's problems and crises being rooted in its rejection of the message of God's prophets including Jesus. He also criticises the "indifference of some governments and powers towards the teachings of the divine prophets, especially those of Jesus Christ".

It seems that, rather like our own Queen, Mahmoud says the same thing every year. And, what is worse, insists on leaking it in advance. Time was, these messages were as closely guarded as the budget used to be. Now it's only the seasonal episode of Doctor Who that is kept under wraps. I wonder what we should read into that. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

What's Watt?

When he learned that the Mail on Sunday were running an embarrassing story about his wife's car-hire business, Assistant Commissioner "Boring" Bob Quick immediately assumed that the Tories must be behind it. Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction, after all, are part of the job description for the nation's senior counter-terrorism officer, along with a steady nerve, political nous and an ability to sort the wheat from the chaff. So the fact that there is no evidence to link any Conservative, high or low, to the incident should not necessarily be taken as proof of innocence on their part. On the other hand, Bob did later withdraw his allegation.

If not the Tories, then who? Suspicions quickly fell on police colleagues who had scores to settle, or perhaps it was all an innocent mistake, a satisfied customer who couldn't resist telling the world what a splendid service Mrs Quick's team of ex-police drivers provided. Perhaps the Diane Davies who was quoted in the Mail that Judith Quick had told her all about her husband's career had something to do with it. Certainly, she posted a gushing testimonial on the company's website. Perhaps.

But here's an interesting piece of gossip I picked up in a police chatroom:

There is a story going around that gutter press reporter Nick Watt, of the Guardian, was the man who leaked the story. Apparently, he and Boring Bob had a spat, and Watt threatened to 'get him', which he appears to have done. There is another rumour that Boring Bob will be moved sideways to another job when the melee has died down. In charge of Fleet Management would appear a good move for him.

Boom Boom.

Checking Nick Watt's Guardian profile, I discover that the political correspondent has posted no fewer than five reports on the story in the past 48 hours. In addition, he wrote a blog yesterday which hinted that the Conservatives might have been behind the story after all, on the basis that they "have long had Quick in their sights". In the orignal version of the post, indeed, Watt asserted that David Cameron himself was gunning for the copper. Watt also quoted a "senior Tory" as saying after Damian Green's arrest, "Bob Quick is behind this. I'm going to fucking get him this time."

So clearly someone is out to get poor Bob. But does Watt (who has also been taking a close interest in the Damian Green inquirty) have inside information - and the rumour about him a perhaps a garbled version of his own blog comments? Or is he just trying to shift the blame? Intriguing. Read the rest of this article

Exclusive interview with "Virgin Killer" photographer

The row over the blocking (in the UK) of Wikipedia over its use of a controversial 32 year old album cover a few weeks ago reached a pragmatic end when the "independent" Internet Watch Foundation reversed its decision. The issues the affair raised were, however, largely left unresolved. The IWF maintained its view that the image of a naked child was, at least, a "potentially illegal indecent image". The incident threw a spotlight on the hitherto little-noticed role of the body which, while informally constituted and technically merely advisory, in practice censors the web. This, too, remains unresolved; although fears that the IWF might be extending its remit to cover the new offence of possessing "extreme" porn seem, at least for the moment, to have been misplaced.

The whole question of what constitutes indecency remains fraught and, culturally as well as legally, something of a minefield. My own ruminations on the subject caught the eye of Michael von Gimbut, who took the now infamous shot for the Scorpions' album "Virgin Killer": he was kind enough to offer thanks for what he called my "wonderful arguments". Gimbut is still practising as a photographer in Berlin three decades later. I took the opportunity to ask him to share his reflections on the incident.

Heresiarch: I have read conflicting accounts about how the image was received at the time. From your memory, was it extremely controversial?

Michael von Gimbut: There were no conflicts in Germany at the time of the shooting. No problem in Japan as well, where it was extremely successful, in several countries the LP was sold in a black plastic bag.

Heresiarch: Do you think that there are cultural differences between Germany and English-speaking countries with regard to nudity? Would a picture of a naked child automatically lead to fears of pornography and paedophilia, in the way that they do in my country? What changes of attitude have there been in Germany since you took the photograph?

MVG: More and more there are hardly any differences between Germany and the UK in regard to nudity. This is probably different in the USA. A survey in the German newspater Die Welt showed 27% of the readers thought the Virgin Killer picture to be pornographic, more than 70% found the discussion to be rather ridiculous.

Heresiarch: Some people who dislike the album cover believe that the expression on the girl's face was sexual or erotic. The law criminalises "erotic posing" - and the Internet Watch was advised that your picture fell within that category. Do you agree that the picture had an "erotic" aspect - and if so, was that deliberate or accidental? Do you remember why you chose that particular shot?

MVG: During the shooting I never told the girl what to do. To achieve my goal, perfect innocence, immaculateness in nudity and youth, any "erotic posing" would have been counterproductive. I do not see anything erotic in the way the girl looks directly into the eyes of the onlooker. But of course I know there are people who even think pictures of cars or horses are erotic. And yes, pedophilia does exist, but is this the way to to grapple with?

Heresiarch: Has the recent controversy taught you anything you didn't know about attitudes towards children and sexuality? Were you shocked or surprised by the attitude of Internet Watch, or the similar controversy earlier this year in the United States?

MVG: My attitudes have not changed, but I am surprised and concerned that the law finds it difficult to differentiate between innocent and abusive pictures. Perhaps there is a need for this discussion, but I hope that there are more responsible persons involved.

Heresiarch: Do you consider that you have either suffered or benefited professionally from controversy arising from the "Scorpions" cover during the past 30 years?

MVG: I have neither suffered nor benefited from the controversy, actually nobody has even asked. Very likely it was different with the Scorpions. From the beginning they always knew what was happening and did not mind a little bit of extra promotion. Nobody had to persuade them. They benefited from the controversy, and started to dissociate from it when the time seemed right for them.

(Michael von Gimbut's website, which contains an extensive gallery of his work, is here.)

Von Gimbut's point about Japan I found particularly interesting. Süddeutsche Zeitung quoted the album's original art director Steffan Böhle as saying that the Japanese authorities would have had more problem if the cover had featured a naked adult. There is, perhaps, something a little uncomfortable, from a Western point of view, about the Japanese cult of the shojo (tweenage girl) as seen most innocently in the Anime work of Hayao Miyazaki and more questionably in some Hentai erotica. And Japan's own censorship rules, which focus almost exclusively on pubic hair, are peculiar in their own way. But the Japanese are surely right to regard adult nudity as inherently erotic in a sense that that of a prepubescent child is not. To take a neutral picture of a child and to read sexuality into it - even for the purpose of child-protection - is in a real sense to think like a paedophile. And if you start going down that road you'll end up by banning Disney.
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Monday, 22 December 2008

Quick Thinking

Our beloved Home Secretary, the ever-delightful Jacqui Smith, today insisted that the Met's counter-terrorism chief Bob Quick, be allowed to "get on with his job of keeping our country safe". This after he was forced to apologise for his bizarre allegation that a story in the Mail on Sunday concerning his wife's wedding car business was part of a Tory plot to undermine his investigation into Home Office leaks. He had called the story "an attempt to undermine an investigation which is legitimate," adding, for good measure, that "the Tory machinery and their press friends are mobilised against this investigation in a wholly corrupt way, and I feel very disappointed in the country I am living in."

This is a quite extraordinary statement - the sort of thing we used to hear from Alastair Campbell when he was Tony Blair's press officer. For a senior serving police officer to start using such inflammatory party-political language is rather sinister. Well, he has apologised, and the Conservative Party say the matter is at an end. But it shouldn't be. Leaving aside for a moment the questions this raises about Quick's judgement in bandying about words like "corrupt", the tradition that the police were politically unengaged is something we used to take for granted in this country. Now, Quick seems to take it for granted that the police should be part of the incumbent government's smear machine. I, too, feel very disappointed in the country I am living in.

Quick now says that it was "never his intention" to make such an allegation about the Conservative Party. To which one might respond that if it wasn't his intention to make the allegation, why did he make it? Had his brain been taken over telekinetically by Lord Mandelson of Foy? He alluded in his apology to the stress which the revelations had caused him - but do we not expect senior police officers, especially those charged with "keeping this country safe", to keep a cool head under pressure? Lashing out emotionally at the party which may soon form the next government is not behaviour likely to instill confidence in his abilities.

Perhaps, though, we shouldn't be surprised, either at the counter-terrorism chief's instincts or at the home secretary's continued confidence in him. Asst Commissioner Quick, known in Met circles as "Boring Bob" for his lacklustre personality, was described by one police insider in an online forum as "Jacqui Smith's favourite copper". A title for which there would seem to be a fair degree of competition, given the success with which New Labour have packed the higher echelons of the Met. Not that many of Bob's colleagues share Smith's enthusiasm. An officer writing on the same forum noted that "Someone who does not engage brain before opening mouth is a bit of a liability in his job," and suggested that he should "consider joining the previous Commissioner who seemed similarly afflicted." Another officer wrote this:

Perhaps he should change his name to Dick, Dick Quick. I'm sorry but the man is not fit for purpose, I always thought you had to have evidence before you started accusing people of wrong doing. He has made himself look an absolute fool, and we have these types running the police force, what hope is there for the rest?

As for Quick's statement that the Mail on Sunday's exposure of his wife's business compromised his personal security, one anonymous police officer described it as "a load of bollocks. If anyone wanted to know where Boring Bob lived, they could just follow him home from work, it wouldn't take a genius to find out where he lived." On the other hand, using his family home to run a private business - one employing former police officers as drivers, apparently - would seem a strange activity for one charged with the sensitive and security-conscious area of counter-terrorism. After all, full details of the location of Mr Quick's home are not only available, they are actually advertised online. Perhaps, though, his title is a little misleading. "I have it on good authority" said an officer at the time of the Green raid, "that counter-terrorist police are a bit under-employed at the moment". They might even be driving Mrs Quick's clients in their spare time.

It is telling that when an unfavourable story about Quick - including mention of his wife's car-hire business - appeared in the Mail on Sunday Boring Bob leapt to the conclusion that someone in the Tory party must have planted it. As though journalists were not capable of (or interested in) looking into his background themselves - and quite why Tory party workers should be interested in Mrs Quick's company seems also somewhat mysterious. More likely one of Boring Bob's many internal enemies - sorry, "usually reliable police sources" - tipped off the hacks. Quick was said to have been in the running for the commissionership. Perhaps it was the same "senior police source" who told the MoS that "Bob Quick needs to ask himself whether he is happy that all this is out and about." Alternatively, the scoop might have come courtesy of "one client of the business, Diane Davies, who booked two cars for her daughter Shelly’s wedding in September" -and, says the report, "was full of praise for the service provided."

‘Nothing was too much trouble for Judith,’ she said. ‘We got chatting while we were making all the arrangements and she told me about her husband’s job.

‘I met him by chance at a garden centre a few weeks after the wedding. He seemed a very nice and friendly man. Judith said he was not involved in running the business.

So here we have a man, charged with "keeping this country safe" from infinitely subtle and well-organised (see Glasgow airport) network of terror which continually threatens it (and, more importantly, from Tory moles at the Home Office), who nevertheless finds time to engage in small talk with his wife's clients. More worryingly, Bob has so successfully trained his wife in the importance of security that she thinks nothing of telling everyone who employs her services all about his job. Staggering. And when, somehow, the news about this potentially serious security lapse makes the papers - not before time, I might add - what is Bob's initial reaction? That it must be the work of those dastardly Tories. This is the reaction of a mind of someone who is not merely politically compromised, but also somewhat paranoid.

Quick's words shed further light on the highly partisan manner in which the Whitehall leak investigation has been conducted (as shown in the decision to raid Damian Green's parliamentary office and home). They suggest a deep-seated distrust of the Conservative Party which is wholly inappropriate for any top-ranking police officer, let alone one charged with such a sensitive inquiry. His comments also suggest an acquaintance with the dark arts of political spin of which a serving policeman ought to be innocent. Dirty tricks, personal attacks on opponents, suggestions to friendly journalists regarding fruitful lines of enquiry - these are the hallmarks of the New Labour smear machine. To my knowledge, the Conservatives have not developed anything so ruthless or unethical: certainly, there's no evidence of such tactics being used in the way New Labour went after the likes of nonagenarian hospital patient Rose Addis or, most tragically, Dr David Kelly. Nevertheless, Bob Quick, like some of the more rabid elements on the political left, seems to imagine that the Mail is the slavish creature of Conservative Central Office, while the Tories emply a crack team of investigative reporters devoted to digging up dirt on their political opponents. Such as senior police officers.

But then the Met don't have an entirely clean record in this regard: witness the attempts to portray Jean Charles de Menezes as a drug-using illegal immigrant vaulting over ticket barriers while wearing a padded jacket. Nor have they ever been short of tame journalists happy to regurgitate their PR spin as "news" or to turn up at four o'clock in the morning when some high-profile person just happens to be arrested. So perhaps Quick thought the Tories were acting in the way any self-respecting senior plod would and playing dirty. After all, these wicked Tory subversives were quite capable of orchestrating a systematic and potentially illegal leak network at the heart of the home office. And Bob knows all about exposing the cunning tactics of terrorists and spies. No doubt his counter-terrorism expertise is coming in handy. Al Qaeda, Iran, Damian Green, the Mail on Sunday: such are the threats which have to be neutralised in order to "keep this country safe".

This whole business speaks volumes about the close sympathy of mind that exists between New Labour and the higher echelons of the Metropolitan Police. This is more than a pragmatic alliance based on a shared desire to control the population. They see the world in much the same way, they have the same siege mentality, they react instinctively to embarrassing situations by detecting imaginary plots and smearing their opponents. They depend on each other. Hopefully when New Labour are finally thrown out their cronies in the police "service" will go the same way. But it will take an act of political courage to take the politics out of policing, so firmly has it now taken root.
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Sunday, 21 December 2008

The anti-gay registrar and the non-gay salesman

It is with considerable relief that I notice (belatedly) that Lillian Ladele's employment tribunal victory has been overturned on appeal. Ladele, you may remember, was the Islington registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies on account of her Evangelical Christian beliefs, and then sued for religious discrimination after she was threatened with disciplinary proceedings.

Ladele was backed by the Christian Institute, which funds many such cases. Its director, Colin Hart, said afterwards that "gay rights are not the only rights" (true) and that "if this decision is allowed to stand it will help squeeze out Christians from the public sphere because of their religious beliefs on ethical issues", which is patent nonsense.

I actually have some sympathy for Ms Ladele who, as the appeal tribunal acknowledged, has been cold-shouldered at work and treated badly by her superiors. one Islington official's actions were even described as "improper, unreasonable and extraordinary". This doesn't surprise me: the flipside of political correctness, as practised by local government, often turns out to be victimisation of anyone whose face doesn't fit or who lacks the hypocrisy to mouth the required platitudes at every opportunity. Just think of Haringey social services. But there was an important principle at stake here, and a victory for Ladele would have had wider implications. Her argument that not conducting civil partnerships formed a vital element of her Christian personality was also a bit strange.

Having laws forbidding discrimination of grounds of religion was always likely to produce results - or controversies - such as this, because religion is first and foremost a set of ideas. These ideas, being peculiarly powerful, are capable of becoming a defining element of one's identity, and thus might give rise to actionable discrimination. The classic case is of the (possibly apocryphal) sign that said "No Jews, No Blacks, No Catholics" (or "Irish" - which, tellingly, amounted to much the same thing). Refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies is not a defining aspect of Christian faith: there are, apart from anything else, many other Christians who have no such problems. Indeed, since a civil partnership ceremony is not in fact a religious event, it is of little or no interest to religion. It would be a different matter if the law insisted that couples be entitled to have same-sex blessings in a church. As such, Ladele's refusal is illogical as well as unreasonable.

As I stated when I looked at the case earlier this year, there is a proper distinction to be made between the fact of someone's professing a religion and the beliefs and actions that might stem therefrom. Ladele was unwilling to fulfil part of her job: the fact that she gave a religious reason for that refusal should matter no more than if the refusal had been made for political or social reasons or, indeed, for reasons of personal bigotry.

I hope that this case - which isn't over yet, since Ladele and her backers intend to take it to the Court of Appeal - serves to restrict the scope of religious discrimination, which otherwise was threatening to turn into a legal minefield. The law, for better or worse, has decided to treat religion as an ontological category. And, indeed, religious people naturally speak in this way: "I am a" Catholic, Baptist, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, Jedi, Pastafarian, whatever. Inasmuch as people can be subject to discrimination directed against the fact that they belong to a religion, then the law might be defensible - though I personally object to the singling out of religion (and indeed of sexuality) it this way. The trouble comes when holding a religious belief becomes conflated with acting in a certain way (which might be inspired by religion) and that behaviour, even if it is in conflict with employment obligations, becomes legally protected. For example, a Muslim supermarket worker might refuse to handle alcohol and claim religious discrimination if his refusal was not indulged. In 2007 it was reported that Sainsbury's had made special arrangements for such workers - a worrying sign. Happily in October a Tesco's worker in Derby, for whom no such special arrangements had been made, lost his case.

Mr Justice Elias, who chaired the appeal, described it as "a fundamental error to confuse unreasonable behaviour and discriminatory behaviour." Indeed it is. But the more fundamental error is to confuse discrimination on the grounds of religion with discrimination on the grounds of behaviour which may be religiously-motivated. Either behaviour - in this case refusing to participate in same-sex blessings - is acceptable or it is not. If it is not acceptable conduct for an atheist to engage in, it should not be acceptable for a religious believer either. Frankly, being religious is no excuse. Ladele's background, as it happens, is Nigerian. At the risk of being down the wrath of the gods myself, I would venture that being Nigerian is statistically a better predictor of homophobic attitudes than being a Christian. Certainly, the combination of the two can be scary, as in the famous case of Archbishop Akinola.

This much should be obvious. So why did Ladele initially win the case? Ministry of Truth's Unity had an ingenious conspiracy theory involving the presence on the initial tribunal of a Mr CJ Storr who shares a name (and thus possibly the identity) of the former Director of Education for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark. It's more likely, though, that they were bamboozled by the very vagueness of the concept of "religious discrimination". If the notion is to be an acceptable one, it cannot confer positive benefits on people of faith that are not shared with members of other faiths or none. And to refuse to perform reasonable work activities from which other employees are not exempt is to claim special privileges.

Indeed, the appeal ruling (pdf) stated that it "plainly cannot be right" that conduct inconsistent with normal employment obligations should be indulged:

If the Tribunal were right to say that the fact that the claimant’s conduct was the result of her religious beliefs meant that she was being discriminated against on religious grounds, the employer could never justify any refusal to accede to an employee’s demands that he should be permitted to manifest his religious beliefs, however bizarre they may be. For example, an employee who refused to work on a particular day or days of the week for religious reasons, or who insists on praying at various times in the day, or who submits that carrying out various duties is incompatible with his or her religious doctrine, could in all cases be entitled to insist on doing these things and the employer would be obliged in all cases to accede to these demands.

Indeed, given in particular the fact that beliefs may cover a vast range of subjective opinions, the consequences would be extraordinary.

Another of this year's troubling employment tribunals involved the hairdresser Sarah Desrosiers, whose business was almost ruined when she was sued by a young Muslim woman who objected to being told that her hijab was a barrier to employment in Ms Desrosiers' "funky" salon. Absurdly, the applicant was awarded £4,000 for her "distress". Bushra Noah won largely because of the wording of the EU directive involved, which reverses the burden of proof. But the principle involved is surely the same as in the Ladele case: Noah argued that her religion required her to act in a way (here, to dress in a way, but dressing is a form of action, sometimes a loud and aggressive one) that was contrary to the demands of the job. She was not discriminated against for being a Muslim, because one can be a perfectly good Muslim without covering your hair, just as you can be a perfectly good Christian without discriminating against homosexuals.

The other headline-grabbing case in the same genre was that of Stephen English, who won his case for sexual harassment at the Court of Appeal - having previously lost at tribunal level - on account of the homophobic abuse he had suffered at work in Portsmouth. The important point here wasn't that the blinds salesman was not, in fact, gay - he is married with children - but that his colleagues were well aware that he wasn't gay, but taunted him anyway. The fact that he lived in Brighton apparently loomed large in the innuendo-laden banter, as did the fact that he had been to public school. The decision seems fair, so far as it goes: Mr English's life was made a misery, although one might wish he had developed a somewhat thicker skin. It seems a little strange, though, that being bullied on account of supposed sexuality should be grounds for legal action whereas equally unpleasant bullying on the grounds of, say, hair colour should escape such censure.

Religion, race, sexual orientation, biological gender, disability: all now are grounds for claims of discrimination. Age, to a limited and growing extent, also qualifies. Do they have anything else in common? Fashionability? More to the point, is there anything that connects deafness with sexuality but excludes passionate support for West Ham United, or that connects the fact of being Muslim and the fact of being Korean but excludes the genetically predetermined fact of having green eyes? Do albinos qualify under discrimination laws because their coloration counts as a disability, while blondes would be excluded? Perhaps a victim of "blondism", if female, could claim sexual harassment - but where does that leave the bullied male redhead? Pretending to be gay? It's all rather arbitrary. If there are to be laws against discrimination, let them be simplified. It should be wrong to discriminate against someone for something that they cannot avoid, and that is not their fault. But there should be no such protection for people who bloody-mindedly make life difficult for themselves and others, and then turn round and blame God.
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Saturday, 20 December 2008

Christmas myths

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without the ritual religion survey. This year's survey for think tank Theos tell us, among other things, that just over a third of the population believe in the Virgin Birth - or at least are willing to assent to the proposition that "Jesus was born to a virgin called Mary". Slightly fewer - 28% - believed Luke's story of shepherds being visited by angels. A more substantial 56% agree the Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Another survey publicised on Radio 4 this morning, and conducted on behalf of a London church, found that 70% of people questioned - including a quarter of professing Christians - "doubted" the traditional account. In addition, "more than a fifth of Christians who answered said they did not believe Jesus was both God and Man - another central tenet of Christianity." Which indeed it is, albeit a notoriously complicated and incomprehensible one.

Put the two surveys together and you get a picture of around a third of the population who purport to accept many of the implausible mythological and miraculous elements of the traditional Christian story. Many of these people will not be regular church-goers, and are unlikely to exhibit many other symptoms of religiosity. Others will be Muslims, who are also supposed to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, or possibly even Hindus, for whom the belief is, I understand, perfectly acceptable. But the majority are unlikely to have given the matter much thought, and are merely regurgitating things they learned as children.

Scepticism about the basic elements of the Christmas story is not necessarily the product of ignorance, or even of irreligion. Sometimes the very opposite may be the case. Take, for example, Jesus' birthplace. Everyone - well, almost everyone - "knows" that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. If all you know of Christianity is some half-remembered childhood nativity play or Christmas carol, then you know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It actually requires some acquaintance with the historical background and with modern scriptural analysis to appreciate that this might not in fact be the case.

In reality, many scholars argue that the tale of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem was invented to fit Old Testament prophecies that the Messiah would be born there. Luke's gospel explains the presence of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem as being a consequence of a census of the entire Roman empire - a census for which there is no historical evidence. He also says that the census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Quirinius was appointed in 7AD, when Jesus would have been at least ten. And John's Gospel contains the following rather embarrassing verse: "But others said, shall the Messiah come out of Galilee? Hath not scripture said, that the Messiah cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?" (7,41-42)".

It's pretty clear that the story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was invented to answer the criticism raised by those "others" that a proper Messiah had to come from that town, and that Luke's mistimed and indeed nonsensical census story was a clumsy attempt to give the idea some sort of plausibility. Almost every aspect of the Christmas story is open to challenge along similar lines. The massacre of the innocents - Herod's attempt to wipe out all the children in Bethlehem - is not recorded by the main historian of the period, Josephus, although he doesn't hold back when it comes to describing Herod's other crimes. Some have detected similarities between Matthew's account and Herodotus' description of events surrounding the birth of Cyrus the Great of Persia (an account which is also highly unlikely to be literally true). The donkey on which Mary supposedly rode to Bethlehem is pure sentimental invention - though it may have been inspired by the donkey that the gospels describe Jesus himself riding into Jerusalem. The shepherds abiding in the fields, the visit of the Magi, the innkeeper - these are elements of the story that owe as much to folklore as to the Bible.

The familiar nativity story combines the accounts of Luke and Matthew, details plucked randomly from other parts the Bible (the ox and the ass, for example, come from Isaiah), parts of apocryphal gospels that never made it into the official Bible and two millennia of speculation and legend. All this has been an open secret for years, shared only by thoughtful believers and unusually well-informed non-believers. Yet it hangs together - as a myth - with remarkable elegance. The official Biblical versions, in comparison, can seem rather disappointing. "Magi from the east" sound exotic but rather vague. The Three Kings, with names and personalities, have rather more potency.

In its fully-developed, medieval form the Nativity is an emotionally engaging myth which combines theology (the Incarnation) with human interest, fairy-tale motifs (eg the usurper's attempt to kill the rightful heir), magical elements (a moving star), oriental opulence (the gifts of the Magi) and a clear moral message. It reached its apogee with the invention of the Christmas Crib, ascribed to St Francis of Assisi. It began to unravel when the Reformation put an emphasis on the words of the Bible and to downplay the story in favour of the theology; post-Enlightenment scepticism simply blew down an already ramshackle structure. It leaves today's Christians stuck with a few basic Biblical "facts" - such as the virgin birth - which without the supporting cast of shepherds, stables, donkeys and camel-riding kings look rather exposed.
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Thursday, 18 December 2008

How to elect an Evangelical

The establishment of the Church of England is back on the agenda again, with Archbishop Rowan Williams telling the New Statesman that abolishing the church-state link would be "by no means the end of the world". As usual with Williams, he manages to see at least three sides of the question, but on balance seems to want the link to remain, if only because "it's a very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society". Hmm.

It's often felt to be paradoxical that American politics is dominated by religious and moral questions, while the state is constitutionally secular, whereas in officially Anglican Britain serious politicians are generally afraid of "doing God". Certainly, it's hard to imagine a Mike Huckabee or even a Sarah Palin achieving prominence here. The Rev Julian Mann, vicar at the Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge in South Yorkshire, has previously written on Cranmer's blog about the shortage of men among regular churchgoers. Today he offers readers of Heresy Corner his thoughts about how an evangelical Christian might become prime minister. The trick is simple: make him black.

Here's what he says:

Great Black Hope for an Evangelical Prime Minister

In all the soul-searching following the election of Barack Obama over the likelihood of a black Prime Minister, what has not registered on the public radar is the fact that a black person is far more likely to become PM than an evangelical Christian.

It is difficult to overstate the extent to which evangelical views on a
wide range of issues are currently counter-cultural in the public
sphere. Our view that salvation is possible only through faith in Jesus
Christ goes against contemporary philosophical pluralism; our view that
sexual love is to be expressed exclusively within heterosexual marriage
goes against the gay rights agenda; our view that life begins at
conception goes against the woman’s right to choose over abortion.

The list goes on. Evangelicalism in 21st century Britain is a
counter-cultural movement. Surely, this militates against a clear,
biblically-consistent evangelical being elected to lead one of the major
secular political parties, let alone leading one to an election victory.

Why are we so unpopular? I am not embarrassed to assert a spiritualised
explanation along the lines, to quote St Paul, that ‘we are not
contending against flesh and blood, but against the powers, against the
world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of
wickedness in the heavenly places’ (Ephesians 6v12 – RSV). But nor will
I claim that we evangelicals have been entirely blameless.

Historically, lack of cultural awareness in our movement, unwarranted
claims to insights into the workings of Providence, and general lack of
‘people skills’ have also been contributory factors. I must confess to
these, as well as to plenty of other 'manifold sins and wickedness', to quote the
General Confession at Holy Communion according to the Book of Common
Prayer (an evangelical liturgy by the way).

The spiritualised explanation does not preclude historical analysis or
penitent self-awareness because, according to our understanding, the
devil uses means and factors in the realm of sinful human experience in
order to oppose God. At the vanguard of these have been the
revolutionary social, political, cultural and moral changes unleashed by the 1960s, transmuting eventually into the new morality of New Labour.

So, there are contemporary factors in our post-1960s culture accounting
for evangelical unpopularity. But historically evangelicals have rarely
held high office in British politics. They had tremendous influence in
the 18th and 19th centuries through Parliamentarians such as William
Wilberforce and the Earl of Shaftesbury but rarely seats in the Cabinet.

The last clearly identifiable evangelical to be Prime Minister was
Wilberforce’s friend and anti-slave trade ally Spencer Perceval, who was
assassinated in 1812. There have been devout Christian Prime Ministers
since, including William Gladstone and Alec Douglas-Home, and those who
would be willing to identify themselves as low church, including Andrew
Bonar Law and arguably Margaret Thatcher with her Methodist background.
But since Perceval we have not had a publicly-professing evangelical.

That is because evangelicalism, with its view of the Bible as the Word
of God and therefore the supreme spiritual and moral authority in human
affairs, is intrinsically a counter-cultural movement in any and every
age. Its influence has ebbed and flowed in British history, but with the
exception of one assassinated Prime Minister it has not occupied the top
political job.

In the current cultural climate, the only realistic hope of an
evangelical ever becoming PM is not white but black. It is hard to
conceive of a member of such an obviously counter-cultural movement
becoming PM in our 'liberalocracy', to use Daily Mail editor Paul
Dacre's term, without the novelty value of the Obama effect.

So, a black evangelical in No. 10, who is a committed, unashamed
disciple of God’s one and only Son Jesus Christ, believes He died for
our sins in our place, and is committed to obeying His Word across the
whole of life, is a prospect evangelicals should get praying for.

Quite how far he or she would be able translate evangelical convictions
into political reality is open to question but we do have our Lord’s
promise that ‘a good man out of his treasure brings forth good’ (Matthew
12v35). Also, given the unfortunate historical precedent, the office of
PM is clearly a dangerous position for an evangelical to occupy, so we
would need to pray for their personal security.

It's an ingenious theory. The two perceived disadvantages - of being black and having strong religious views - would seem almost to cancel each other out. Indeed, Trevor Phillips of the Equality Commission recently expressed the view - no doubt true - that the British people would "rather like" to vote for a black leader. Keeping up with the Obamas, as it were. Whether unambiguously expressed evangelical views would prove quite so attractive to the electorate is another matter. Tony Blair himself was concerned that, were the full extent of his religious motivation publicly exposed, people would conclude that he was "a nutter".

It also occurs to me that Mr Mann's ideal candidate already exists: the Rev George Hargreaves, a former record producer who has stood in numerous by-elections under the banner of the Christian Party. His evangelical credentials are indisputable, and he has even fronted a reality TV show, Channel 4's Make Me A Christian. Earlier this year he challenged David Davis in Haltemprice and Howden. He got 76 votes. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Nanny grows best

Chris Dillow has an interesting explanation for the large increase in state nannying over the past decade: it gives the government a chance to justify its existence during times of prosperity when there's no obvious need for it to be messing around with the economy. Also, enforcing all these policies costs money which is in short supply when there's a recession on - and people with money to spend have more opportunity to do the foolish things that attract Nanny's tut-tuttery. Furthermore:

Economic booms cause governments to exaggerate their ability - as the saying goes, everyone’s a genius in a bull market. So they pursue nannying policies. Recessions remind them that they are less in charge of events than they’d like to think. This should breed a scepticism about whether state intervention in our drinking or eating habits can actually succeed.

I think there's a considerable amount of truth in that. There are other factors at work, though, too. One is the role of the media: the Today programme, newspapers, TV news bulletins and all the rest have a fixed amount of space to fill, and when there aren't any stories about job losses or banks collapsing the editors will turn to health crises, moral panics and social conundrums. Interviews with ministers follow a set pattern: a package sets up a problem, X; the minister is introduced and asked What is the Government doing about X? If a satisfactory answer is not forthcoming, the complaint from the Opposition is invariably "the Government isn't doing enough about X".

One of the oftenest heard clichés - from Government, pressure groups and experts alike - is to the effect that "doing nothing is not an option". But of course it is. Doing nothing is always an option. In most cases, doing nothing has worked perfectly well for hundreds of years.

To some extent, government activism on non-economic issues - exhorting people to live healthier lives, setting targets for schools, hospitals and the police, has filled the gap left by the loss of government power over the major economic questions. In the 1970s, the time of the last really bad recession, the major industries and utilities were nationalised, with boards appointed by the government and in many cases under fairly firm government control. The Thatcher government got rid of most of that, while other significant areas of political power have progressively been lost to Europe. Decisions once made by ministers have (often to spare ministerial blushes) been subcontracted to quangoes such as NICE. Yet government hasn't got any smaller; in fact, the less it controls the more officials it appears to need, just as the Royal Navy now has more admirals than ships. There are periodic efficiency drives, of course, but regulations are like the heads of the hydra: cut one out, and two appear in its place.

If the nanny state is a product of an excess of bureaucracy, I doubt it will disappear any time soon, however deep the recession. Indeed, as it becomes ever clearer that the government can't solve the economic crisis then the need for them to prove their worth in other ways may, if anything, increase. True, a collapse in tax revenues might eventually make the infrastructure of the nanny state unsustainable, but by that time technology might have taken up some of the slack.

Beyond the government's need to constantly to be doing something, and the media narrative of problems seeking solutions, there's also the fact that so many problems that once loomed large have effectively been solved. The outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe is a reminder of how deadly it once was in Britain, and of how many other diseases, from rickets and diptheria to typhoid and the bubonic plague, have virtually disappeared. Life for most people is much cleaner, safer and healthier than it ever was - but this hasn't been matched by a reduction in fear, or in the number of doctors. Just as there are far fewer fires than there ever used to be, but just as many firemen. Sorry, "fire-fighters". Without proper medical complaints to deal with, GPs are in the process of being remade as managers, implementing centrally determined targets for reductions in rates of smoking and cholesterol. Once upon a time, most people only visited the doctor if they were ill; now they want you to come in for endless tests and lectures about diet.

Indeed, it is a paradox of much nanny state legislation is that it only becomes truly oppressive at the point when the victory is almost won. When smoking was ubiquitous, and the health crisis it created thus presumably at its most severe, the measures taken to combat it were relatively slight: messages on the sides of fag packets, restrictions on TV advertising (which, rather charmingly, never applied to cigars or pipes, so that many of us have fond memories of those Hamlet adds with their subtle us of Bach). Now smoking levels are below 20%, instead of celebrating their success the anti-smoking lobby wish to pursue their routed opponents, dreaming up new measures to make life miserable for the hard core who continue to puff away in the full knowledge that they are doing themselves harm.

Today's outbreak of nannyism is linked to that great issue of our days, the obesity epidemic (or is it a timebomb?). Apparently a quarter of Britain's under-fives are overweight - and by the time they reach school it's too late to reverse the problem. An unfortunate development, certainly, but rather less apocalyptic than it is painted. Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer for England, said it was no exaggeration to describe soaring rates of obesity as an "impending crisis". Depends how you define "crisis", I suppose. Most people are well aware that obesity brings with it health risks and a multitude of other inconveniences, and are quite capable of losing weight if they set their minds to it. Some will need, or will request, help. But national obesity strategies are generally job-creation schemes for state busybodies.

Nevill Rigby on CIF (concentrating on the alarming conclusions of the Health Survey for Englant) wonders if "publishing the health survey to remind us of the sheer weight of numbers at this time of the year is necessary in order to prick the nation's collective conscience to forego second helpings of turkey, forfeit that extra dollop of double cream on the plum pudding, and go easy on the booze." He laments that "year after year this statistical stocktaking reproaches our increasing girth, our unrestrained drinking habits, and our innate unwillingness keep up with the keep fit fanatics." But if today's reports are indeed seasonally intended, they are merely the modern equivalent of Scrooge's bah-humbuggery. Rigby also warns that:

Once the festive cheer has subsided, the Department of Health's New Year resolution is to urge us all to join in its Change4Life campaign and take heed of the government's guidelines on healthy eating, exercise and alcohol consumption.

Can't wait. Government advice is all very well, but at the end of the day it's simply advice from experts employed by the government; it isn't necessarily better than any other expert advice. In any case, the real "timebomb" is demographic, not health-related. Yes, treating diabetes and heart disease costs money. And yes, it's more convenient for the government if everyone is obeying their lifestyle advice, working long hours and not worrying their little heads about politics. But - and despite the "obesity epidemic" - projections continue to show an aging, increasingly healthy, increasingly long-lived population. Arguably, overweight people who die young of heart attacks are doing everyone else a favour.
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Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Why is Labour so illiberal?

A day after her inelegant and unenthusiastic apology for fiddling knife-crime figures (or being "too quick off the mark with the publication of one number", as she preferred to put it) our control-freak home secretary Jacqui Smith has announced strategic retreats on two of her most illiberal policies. In a speech to IT professionals (a group who have more reason than most people to thank New Labour) she proposed changes to the DNA database and to the workings of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, a controversial piece of legislation better known as the Snoopers' Charter.

She spun this as "appropriate guidelines" and "common sense guidelines", but in reality her hand has been forced. The European Court of Human Rights recently demanded the removal of the details of innocent people from the national criminal DNA database - and the government is legally obliged to comply, though we can be sure it will do so with foot-dragging reluctance. And recent high profile cases of local authorities using "anti-terrorist" powers to spy on paperboys or dustbins have seriously dented public confidence. Whether or not it is accurate to describe modern Britain as a "police state", it no longer feels absurd - testimony in itself to New Labour's lamentable record. And the UK is, beyond question, a surveillance society to an extent unparallelled in history.

It may be that we have reached the high water-mark of New Labour authoritarianism. I wouldn't bet on it, though. The government remains wedded to intrusive technical solutions and continues to regard traditional legal safeguards as inconvenient obstacles to efficiency. Smith announced her reviews with evident reluctance, and even hinted that any relaxation will be balanced by new controls. Thus the DNA database will be extended in new ways. As for RIPA, she was mainly "concerned at the level of misunderstanding there is about what these powers are". In other words, by the bad publicity: "It’s these tales of ‘dustbin Stasi’ and examples of excessive intrusion that give the responsible and respectable use of the powers a bad name". So she promised to "consult" on the extent and use of the powers, which will probably mean that nothing changes.

This passage was particularly disingenuous:

Let’s be clear. RIPA is not anti-terror legislation, as is sometimes suggested. RIPA limits the use of investigatory powers, and makes sure they are used properly and proportionately. The legislation provides for oversight by independent commissioners and routes for individuals to complain if they feel the use of these powers has been unjustified.

As the Telegraph points out, RIPA was introduced eight years ago ostensibly to put all previously existing powers on a coherent statutory basis, but in the process the government greatly extended the number of bodies able to use surveillance powers and the ways in which they could be used. And they justified this by repeated references to terrorism and serious organised crime. The problems that have arisen were foreseen, and warned about, by opponents of the legislation while it was being passed. The dustbin Stasi are not an unforeseen consequence of the legislation; but Smith and her colleagues seem genuinely surprised that they should have proved so unpopular.

Writing in the New Statesman, Jeremy Sare this week asks: "What is about the office of home secretary, which transforms relatively well-adjusted Labour ministers into illiberal controllers of our freedom?"

It's a good question. Especially since Tory home secretaries - even the much-maligned Michael Howard - don't normally behave like that. Almost the reverse. Enraged by the hotbead of liberalism the home office had become under the likes of Leon Brittan and Douglas Hurd, Mrs Thatcher once brought in a scary hard-man named David Waddington, the kind of Tory who used to thrill party conferences with demands for the reintroduction of hanging. Yet Waddington did little to divert the old Home Office from its generally liberal course, preferring tough talk to tough action. Michael Howard is often credited - or blamed - with giving the Home Office a more right-wing populist focus during John Major's premiership, but that is not perhaps entirely fair. Howard initially favoured ID cards but decided against them and was clearly opposed to the scheme while Tory leader. When he left office the prison population was a third less than it is today.

For the Statesman, the worst of Labour's home secretaries has been David Blunkett. I'm not so sure. It's true that some of the most authoritarian legislation was introduced on his watch - ID cards, and restrictions on trial by jury to name but two - but he also had a fairly sensible drugs policy, and he won few friends among the police with his open desire for political control over them. The extreme toxicity of his legislation, I suspect, is due to timing: he occupied the post between 2001 and 2004, when the terror terror was at its most extreme and the Blairite state at its unchallenged. Still, Blunkett was no friend of traditional British freedom, any more than Jack Straw had been, or than the ineffable Jacqui Smith is today.

Sare reminds us that the "home secretary is the only cabinet minister, other than the prime minister, who has 24-hour armed protection," and wonders if this "constant reminder of the threat of violence has some subliminal influence on their outlook". He reflects that, with time, ministers lose their liberal instincts and come to rely on knee-jerk authoritarianism. They also become "increasingly emotional".

This, however, is too kind. Jacqui Smith did not enter the office with any detectable liberal sympathies. One of the earliest interviews with her when she took office - in the New Statesman, as it happened - noted that

It may be tempting to see Smith as gentler than her predecessors, partly because she is a woman and partly because of the calm way she approached the failed terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London on her first weekend in the new job. But, on all the most pressing issues, she is a hardliner in the tradition of Blunkett and Reid rather than an instinctive liberal like Clarke. On extension of the 28-day period of detention without charge, on identity cards, on penal policy and on immigration, she is, if anything, more convinced about the authoritarian approach than the tough guys who came before.

According to Jeremy Sare, a home secretary should have equal regard to running an effective law-enforcement regime and to protecting personal freedoms, but "the second part seems, at times, to have become a source of intense irritation to Labour home secretaries." What is especially strange, perhaps, is that the very pressure groups which they come up against - such as Liberty - are staffed with people who, ten or fifteen years ago, were often their own younger selves. No doubt guilt helps fuel the irritation.

But while Lefties can attempt to reassure themselves that there is something about being surrounded by all that security that turns previously delicate liberal hearts to thoughts of databases, I think we have to look at the psychology of the Left to see why it is that, with rare exceptions (one thinks of Roy Jenkins, obviously) Labour has turned to authoritarianism.
In the first place, perhaps, being generous, one may detect a certain naivety among socialists about human goodness. Put simply, they may be less prepared than Tories for the reality of base criminality that the agencies of law enforcement deal with on a daily basis. They therefore have a tendency to go over-compensate for their earlier soft-heartedness.

There's a need to prove themselves, knowing that the tabloids assume a Labour spokesman is going to be soft. Tories can expect the benefit of the doubt, as Labour can on health or the welfare state. An instructive comparison is the the former shadow home secretary David Davis. Davis is no softie - he supports capital punishment for some forms of murder, at least theoretically - but he was able to use his position on the Conservative front bench to campaign (with some success) against the worst features of New Labour authoritarianism. New Labour, a political machine that has always been obsessed with presentation and headlines, is perennially terrified of being outflanked on law'n'order.

There are philosophical issues too, though, that are not covered by a simplistic division into liberals and authoritarians. It is possible to be both a liberal and an authoritarian - and in quite contradictory ways. Davis (like many instinctive Tories) is a liberal authoritarian: that is, he believes that society is generally self-policing, and is best regulated by families and communities; and that the role of the police and the courts is to come down hard on criminals, as far as possible leaving law-abiding people alone. New Labour ministers tend to be authoritarian liberals: their vision of society is one of generally incompetent and unevolved people who need to be coralled, controlled and told what to do in order to produce a re-engineered society that more closely resembles their ideal. Which is currently that of a tolerant egalitarian wonderland in which diversity of appearance is matched to a uniformity of behaviour and even thought. Right-wing authoritarians want to be tough on criminals; left-wing authoritarians want to be tough on everyone.

Many on the left have a suspicion of the police and of state. But that is only because the police and the state is, they believe, in the hands of the oppressers, the ruling classes, the Enemy. Being schooled in Marxist ideology, they never internalise the idea that the police might be an instrument of something abstract like the rule of law. The state is only the enemy so long as it is controlled by someone else: in their own hands it becomes an instrument to be used, as lavishly as possible, in their own cause. They deny that they are politicising the police because they can't get their heads round the idea that the police might not previously have been political.

Sare argues that "this unrelenting harsh approach and controlling instincts is a more of a feature of Labour Governments under Blair and Brown" than of earlier versions of the party, praying in aid the record of Roy Jenkins. But Jenkins was never really a socialist: it wasn't particularly surprising that he later went off to found the SDP. And he was by inclination (if not quite by birth) part of the Establishment, never happier than when swanning around Oxford as University Chancellor, drinking port on various high tables and, towards the end of his life, taking a grandfatherly interest in Chelsea Clinton.

Besides, Jenkins remembered the War. That particular lesson in the dangers of an out-of-control security state may have been lost on younger politicians. And while Conservatives generally want to conserve things radicals want to smash things up. The ancient totems of British liberty, trial by jury, Habeas Corpus, freedom under the law and so forth, mean more to a natural conservative than to someone who has an instinctive suspicion of institutions and traditions. Viewed from the outside, abuses of state power, miscarriages of justice and political manipulations of the police or the security services fire the righteous indignation of the left-wing activist. But once their own bottoms are comfortably planted on the seats of power, things look very different.
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Monday, 15 December 2008

Over POTUS hath he cast out his shoe

It did not, perhaps, require the expertise of a cultural anthropologist to elucidate what the Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi was trying to say when he threw his shoes at soon to be ex-president Bush during a now infamous Baghdad news conference. Indeed, al-Zaidi (who would seem to have become a popular hero throughout much of the Middle East, with crowds demanding his release) was sufficiently explicit in his accompanying remarks. "This is a farewell kiss, you dog," he yelled (admittedly in Arabic) as he threw the shoes. "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq." And indeed it is not entirely clear that he denuded himself of his shoes because they were shoes, rather than because they were the most convenient weapon he had to hand.

Nevertheless, reporters covering the incident were certain that al-Zaidi's gesture was one of deep symbolic significance. "Showing the soles of one's shoes is considered an insult in Arab culture," said the Telegraph. The BBC radio report added that the reference to Bush as a "dog" increased the insult, dogs being considered unclean in Muslim culture (although I suppose it could have been worse: he might have called Dubya a pig). The Guardian had even more to say on the subject:

It was also pregnant with symbolism. In the Arab world, throwing shoes at somebody is considered a serious insult, as is even showing them the soles of one's footwear, as demonstrated by jubilant Iraqis towards the statue of Saddam Hussein as it was toppled in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion.

Who better to explain the deeper layers of significance contained in al-Zaidi's act of incaligation (a word I've invented to mean "shoe-throwing", from the Latin caliga, boot) than CIF's Khaled Diab, himself an Egyptian? Diab informs us that:

While throwing your shoes at someone would be considered insulting in any culture, in the Arab world, the gesture has a special potency: footwear is commonly used to deliver both verbal and physical insult. In Egypt, for example, many popular and colourful insults include the mention of shoes: "You son of a shoe", "You have shoes for brains", "You'll follow me like an old shoe", etc.

Arabic, of course, is a metaphor-laden language, just as English is. Saddam Hussein's description of the 1st Gulf War as "the mother of all battles" has permanently enriched our tongue, and may prove to be his only notable contribution to world culture. But although Diab thinks that the offensiveness of these insults is "largely lost in translation", one doesn't have to look far in English for footwear-based invective. Those wishing Gordon Brown a speedy exit have not infrequently expressed a desire for him to be "booted out" at the next election, if not before. Brewer's reminds me that "to have ones heart in one's boots" is to be "utterly despondent". The exhortation to "lick my boots", meanwhile, would fall easily within the remit of the Cairene expressions that Diab elucidates thus:

The offensive power of shoes probably has something to do with the lowly status of the shoe, which resides, downtrodden with its face in the dirt, all the way at the bottom of the clothing hierarchy. That's why worshippers leave their shoes outside mosques.

I'd always assumed that it was to avoid getting mud on the carpets.

That is probably why hot-blooded working-class Egyptian women sometimes take off their shoes or slippers to hit men who harass them on the street: to show that the man belongs in the gutter and is not worthy of contempt. Bizarrely and inexplicably, slapping someone on the back of the neck and calling them a "nape" ('afa) is also a huge insult.

Because hitting someone on the neck in Britain counts as a compliment.

But throwing shoes isn't something we're used to seeing in European political discourse. More often, in Britain, it's eggs or flour, while on the continent the custard pie-lobbing antics of Belgian activist Georges "le Gloupier" Godin represent perhaps the ne plus ultra of projectile-based protest. Apart from anything else, shoe-throwing is impractical. Unless you bring along a spare pair for the occasion - not something al-Zaidi was in a position to do, needless to say - you're left afterwards without anything to walk home in. Whereas your victim may be able - especially at a time of economic constraint - to sell the things on Ebay and raise some useful cash.

Exploring the matter further, however, one soon discovers that, in Britain at least, throwing shoes at someone isn't an insult at all. On the contrary, it is a gesture of approbation, even of love.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore relates that the custom of attaching shoes to the back of a newlyweds' car "is a specialised form of what was once a widespread practice, that of throwing an old shoe at or after someone to wish them luck." The Encyclopaedia of Superstitions (Ed E and MA Radford) adds the somewhat counterintuitive information that "it is a sign of special good fortune if someone, when throwing, manages to hit one of the pair." The wedding custom of throwing the bridal bouquet, we learn from the same source, is an adaptation of the earlier practice, wherein the bride would remove her shoe and lob it towards the bridesmaids: whoever was hit would be the next to get married, perhaps to the doctor treating her for concussion.

Such customs would seem to require more in the way of explanation than the contrary Arab practice, which strikes me as being fairly self-explanatory. The ODEF suggests that the shoe may symbolise the female sexual organs. That may also explain why shoe-throwing is so insulting in the Middle East, of course, given the general status of women in those parts.

The Radfords for their part take note of an Anglo-Saxon wedding ritual, in which "it was the custom for the father to give one of the bride's shoes to the bridegroom, who would gently tap her on the head with it" and also a passage about oath-taking from the Biblical Book of Ruth which tells how "a man plucked off his shoe and gave it to his neighbour; and this was a testimony to Israel". But they consider that "these decorous ceremonies" do not resemble the violent shoe-throwing at weddings and elsewhere, and suggest a deeper explanation:

Until very recently, shoes were often thrown after ships leaving port, or people beginning a journey or a new enterprise, or taking up new work. By doing this, the throwers conveyed luck to the ship or individual concerned, probably because they were endowing them with a little of their own life-essence or strength.

In which case, the Iraqi journalist's action takes on a completely different significance. For is not George W. Bush shortly "beginning a journey", starting out on a new life after eight years in the White House? Muntadur al-Zaidi may just have been trying to wish him luck.
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Saturday, 13 December 2008

Carrie-d away

According to a report in the Telegraph, stockings this Christmas are unlikely to be bulging with the self-absorbed twitterings of Jonathan Ross, Jade Goody, feuding celebrity chefs or even Michael Parkinson.

André Breedt, of Nielsen BookScan, a book data service, said: "Trade non-fiction – the category for celebrity autobiographies – is down about 3 per cent year on year at the moment... People just don't seem to be buying at the moment."

Another symptom of the death of the British economy? At a time of prosperity, reading about the charmed lives of footballers or talent show winners might have seemed aspirational. Now it's simply grating. The celebrity sausage-machine now looks to be one of those insubstantial enterprises on which the phony economy of the Blair years subsisted.

Alternatively, people may simply have woken up to the fact that ghost-written self-justification rarely makes for good literature. Successful performers, like successful politicians, rarely produce memorable memoirs, and for much the same reason: they have too much to lose. They are defending, or creating, a mythic version of themselves. Losers, outsiders, people on the fringes of power and fame, who see the whole tawdry business for what it really is - only they usually write anything worth reading.

One such may be Carrie Fisher, whose amusingly entitled autobiography Wishful Drinking was also reviewed in today's Telegraph - by Lynn Barber. Carrie Fisher is fondly remembered by an entire generation for her stint as Jabba the Hutt's sex slave in Return of the Jedi, but she has always been a better writer than she was an actress and has had a life rich in the kind of personal tribulations that always make good copy, including drug abuse, depression and "a supernatural power to turn men gay". Her mother, Debbie Reynolds, seems an unconventional parent, too. Take this:

Debbie is a game old bird – still performing at 78. Eddie Fisher [her husband] said in his autobiography that she was a lesbian but, Fisher exclaims indignantly, "My mother is not a lesbian! She's just a really really bad heterosexual." She once gave Carrie, then aged 15, and her grandmother matching vibrators for Christmas, but the grandmother said she didn't want to use it because it might short-circuit her pacemaker and anyway she'd lived all this time without having an orgasm, she didn't plan to start now.

There's still a week of Christmas shopping to go.
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