Saturday, 28 February 2009

Pulled Pullman, Absent Aaronovitch

In the event I didn't make it to the Convention on Modern Liberty. If I'd known about the Orwell nomination a couple of weeks earlier I might have tried to blag my way onto a platform; as it was I'll have to rely on the extensive coverage in the Guardian.

One of the highlights was the novelist Philip Pullman, who delivered a rousing speech concluding with the thought that "We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation." I'm not convinced the government deserves all the blame for its pessimistic assessment of the public: mutual mistrust has become endemic at all levels of society, and it shouldn't be forgotten how often demands for more surveillance and more identity verification come from the bottom up, or have become internalised. How normal it now seems for shop assistants to diligently scan every fiver they're handed for signs of forgery, how easily people put up with such displays of impertinence. "Can't be too careful", we say, as though it the statement were obviously true rather than (as it is) absurd. Still, such pathological suspicion of our fellow citizens is certainly useful to the ruling securocrats.

His convention speech isn't Pullman's only recent intervention in this debate. The Times website yesterday hosted a superb article of his, a kind of prose poem about the crisis in civil liberties entitled Are such things done on Albion’s shore? "The image of this nation that haunts me most powerfully is that of the sleeping giant Albion in William Blake’s prophetic books," he writes "Sleep, profound and inveterate slumber: that is the condition of Britain today."

I was going to quote from it here in rebuttal of Jack Straw, but when I went back to check the server returned a "404 error". I assumed a glitch - at most, that the article had been published prematurely. I looked forward to reading it at leisure in the morning. Not there. Instead there was a long piece by David Aaronovitch telling us why we should all love Big Brother. For whatever reason, that article doesn't seem to be up on the site either.

Strange - especially strange that Pullman's essay also disappeared from Google's cache a couple of hourse later. Cached articles, even if deleted, tend to remain available for a few days at least. This does suggest an effort to remove it. Conspiracy sniffers quickly jumped to conclusions - that it had been removed at the behest of Rupert Murdoch, for example, or because some shadowy agent of the police state took fright at Pullman's eloquence. Unlikely. In any event, the article (retrieved just in time) has now been reproduced all over the blogosphere. I won't be following suit, mainly because there's a copyright notice at the end of the article and I respect copyright. Prim and old-fashioned of me, I know. But go and take look at it by all means.

Pullman writes:

We do not know what is happening to us. In the world outside, great events take place, great figures move and act, great matters unfold, and this nation of Albion murmurs and stirs while malevolent voices whisper in the darkness - the voices of the new laws that are silently strangling the old freedoms the nation still dreams it enjoys.

We are so fast asleep that we don’t know who we are any more.

There is beauty there, but is there also truth. Needless to say, in his equally disappeared (or never posted) article for today's print edition of the Times, David Aaronovitch doesn't think so. He claims that the campaign against the current government's culture of repression and surveillance is little more than "a Poujadist moan of the aggrieved professional classes" who have "contempt for politics and politicians".

Aaronovitch drunk the Cool-Aid years ago, of course. Like Polly Toynbee he has long since made up his mind. Challenging his naive trust in the state on the Moral Maze the other week, Michael Portillo (who unlike Aaronovitch has actually been in the cabinet) told him that "the government routinely abuses the powers it has". And what did DA have to say about that? That "he would have taken it more seriously if [Portillo] had said it at the time." Hardly an adequate answer.

He has some similarly ad hominem arguments in this latest piece. For example:

Nor is the Convention entirely free of a certain casual hypocrisy. Here's one obvious example: the number of speakers or backers of the event who will raise a clamour about what they see as abrogations of freedoms in Britain while almost simulataneously sending birthday greetings to the semi-dictatorship in Cuba. The writer Victoria Brittain will doubtless fascinate on the subject of British collusion with human rights abuses in Guantanamo, but she recently offered the Cuba Solidarity Campaign a little herogram invoking "the Cuban revolution, with its great triumphs" as well as "the selfless ordinary Cubans" without once hinding at the admittedly depressing fact that these wonderful folk are not trusted with any political freedoms at all, and that dissent in Cuba is systematically suppressed. Remarkably, there are several others associated with the convention who have done exactly the same thing...

Very interesting, but scarcely an argument. From Stalin to Hamas, the British left has had a habit of indulging any regime that opposes the West. Even Mugabe is still regarded in some quarters as a great liberation leader who only went bad in the last year or two. Selective outrage is indeed hypocritical. But that doesn't mean that they're incapable of noticing what's happening in their own country, does it?

His other main argument - in partial contradiction to the above - seems to be that

much of the convention's rhetoric and animating spirit is of the "Britons Awake!" variety, lumping in the million irritations of modern cheek-by-jowl existence, such as parking wardens, road-space rationing, antisocial behaviour, regulation and refuce collection, with fox-hunting, counter-terror measures and the enforcement of immigration laws, to create one gigantic dismal, yowling portrait of "our rights" being taken away by "them".


there was an entire class of busybodies, from park wardens to playground supervisors, who spent the Fifties and Sixties telling people what was and was not in the by-laws. How we yearn for them now!

True, there have always been jobsworths and busybodies, people whose main pleasure in life lies in "just doing their job" while using their tiny piece of delegated power to make someone else's life a misery. The difference today is that such people have a greater reach, greater access to information, and, increasingly, legal powers of enforcement without resort to courts or even the police.

Aaronovitch's complacency on these issues - which basically boils down to "I trust the State, the State is my friend, the State would never harm me" - is both breathtaking and rather beside the point. Of course, the majority of people - people who aren't criminals, and who aren't activists either, people who keep their heads down and conform to the system - will not directly be injured by the overweening state. There will of course be people who are unlucky - who are mistaken for criminals through inevitable mistakes in the databases, or who put their rubbish out a couple of hours early and find themselves taken to court, or who lose their ID and discover they suddenly don't have a life any more. But they will always be in the minority. The real impact on the general run of people will be subtler, and has already begun. It is, not to sound too metaphysical, about what all the surveillance does to the soul.

Here Pullman nailed it, in lines that struck me with great force. Mainly, perhaps, because they mirror what I have thought for some time:

We can see you have abandoned modesty

Some of our friends have seen to that

They have arranged for you to find modesty contemptible

In a thousand ways they have led you to think that whoever does not want to be watched must have something shameful to hide

We want you to feel that solitude is frightening and unnatural

We want you to feel that being watched is the natural state of things

UPDATE (Monday March 2) The Times website has reinstated the article, but without any explanation as to what happened to it. A post on Liberal Conspiracy yesterday quoted an email purportedly from Pullman himself and headed "sinister disappearance" in which the author remarked, "My article has disappeared .... I’m just letting you know so that when I fail to turn up tomorrow you’ll be able to tell people that the secret police have got me." Coincidence?
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Friday, 27 February 2009

Too much information

The Times reports the latest reservations expressed by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas (whose job requires him to be concerned about such things) about the "hard-wiring" of surveillance.

“In the last 10 or 15 years a great deal of surveillance in public and private places has been extended without sufficient thought to the risks and consequences,” said Mr Thomas, 59. “Our society is based on liberty and democracy. I do not want to see excessive surveillance hardwired into British society.”

Well, if he doesn't want to see "hardwired" surveillance, I suggest he doesn't look up while he walks down the street. His main problem, though, is with provisions in the Coroners and Justice Bill, which will allow mass data sharing between government departments and the private sector. The implications of that would be nightmarish even if civil servants didn't have a habit of leaving people's personal information lying around on trains. But - here's the big news -

Whitehall sources told The Times yesterday that Mr Straw would amend the Bill in the next few weeks to meet Mr Thomas's criticisms. Previously Mr Straw's department had maintained that there were sufficient safeguards, including a requirement for parliamentary approval for each data transfer.

This is how the government tends to operate. First make proposals so draconian, so wide-ranging, so outrageously illiberal that even the sedated drones of the Labour backbenches would have trouble sleepwalking through the lobbies, and then, when the opposition becomes deafening, introduce a few token "concessions". These concessions will either be meaningless "safeguards" - the interposition of an ombudsman or high court judge will suffice - or will narrow the scope of the legislation in a manner that the government probably desired all along, for powers too wide in scope may prove inefficient or legally awkward. But the legislation's opponents, most of them anyway, will be satisfied to have wrung at least something from the government, and come away feeling vindicated. Meanwhile the authoritarian ratchet is tightened another cog, and a precedent has been established. When the government come back the following year to close the "loophole" that their own concession created the opposition is far more muted.

Jack Straw was today arguing that, far from being the most authoritarian government in living memory, New Labour has actually been good for liberty. He sees as evidence for this the facts that

I occasionally ask the asylum seekers at my constituency surgeries why they made the very long journey to the United Kingdom rather than a much shorter one somewhere else. The answer is almost always the same: it is better here.

Many people in foreign climes have a sentimental vision of Britain as a land of liberty. But these days that's almost as anachronistic as the equally persistent idea that London is perpetually smothered in fog. In terms of surveillance at least, only the Singaporeans, and possibly the Chinese, are as closely monitored as the Brits. But Straw's argument by misperception doesn't just encompass asylum seekers:

More generally, despite the claims of a systematic erosion of liberty by those organising this weekend's Convention on Modern Liberty, my very good constituency office files show no recent correspondence relating to fears about the creation in Britain of a "police state" or a "surveillance society".

So either people simply don't care about the increasing infringements of their privacy (a contention for which their is a depressing amount of evidence) or they just don't know. Perhaps they don't. Thomas criticises the "lack of debate" that has accompanies such measures as the inexorable growth of the DNA database, the storing of car numberplates or the creation of the ContactPoint database of children. And many people seem to believe that the ID card is merely a card which will establish someone's identity. In a report for the IPPR published this week, Sir David Ormand, former head of security and intelligence at the Cabinet Office, reported that

Once an individual has been assigned a unique index number, it is possible to accurately retrieve data across numerous databases and build a picture of that individual's life that was not authorised in the original consent for data collection

And seemed to be positively licking his chops at the prospect. I think the word "accurately" is more than a little optimistic, though.

Straw sums up as follows:

I hope that in the final reckoning even some of our harshest critics will concede that this Labour government has done more than any before it to extend liberties and to constrain government.

Boom Boom, as Basil Brush used to say.
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Thursday, 26 February 2009

Geert over there

Geert Wilders has been visiting America. He has given a major speech at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York and appeared on Fox News. He had no trouble passing through immigration, it would seem, though since the United States is not part of the EU he has no automatic right of entry. Nor have there been any reports of rioting or the civil unrest whose spectre our own Home Office invoked as justification for forbidding him entry to Britain. Ten thousand angry Muslims did not descend on the venue; indeed, a relatively small percentage of New York's population was even aware of his presence. Puzzling, that. It cannot simply be that Lord Ahmed was otherwise engaged.

Coincidentally, Hazel Blears, the "Communities" Secretary, has also been giving a speech, this time at the LSE, on the government's current approach to "engagement" with various types of Islamist. Being a member of a government that banned Wilders from the country as a dangerous threat to national security, it is only to be expected that Blears and Wilders have diametrically opposed views. And, indeed, they have little time for each other. Blears talks dismissively of "Geert Wilders' outfit in Holland" while Wilders, for his part, singles out " the snobbish left", populated by people who have "too much money, too much time, too little love of liberty". But such mutual antipathy does not preclude a certain similarity of phrase. Hazel warns of the dangers of those who believe in

... the supremacy of the Muslim people, in a divine duty to bring the world under the control of hegemonic Islam, in the establishment of a theocratic Caliphate, and in the undemocratic imposition of theocratic law on whole societies: these are the defining and common characteristics of the disparate strands of this ideology here and around the world.

While Wilders told his audience:

I come before you to warn of a great threat. It is called Islam. It poses as a religion, but its goals are very worldly: world domination, holy war, sharia law, the end of the separation of church and state, slavery of women, the end of democracy. It is NOT a religion, it is an political ideology. It demands your respect, but has no respect for you.

The difference between Wilders and Blears would seem to be a subtle one, a question of pure semantics. Blears argues that the political ideology going by the name (usually) of Islamism is distinct from the purely religious phenomenon known as Islam. Wilders is of the view that that political ideology is Islam in its purest form. Therein lies the danger. As Blears warns: "Even in English, where the two words are distinct, many people lack the political literacy to distinguish between a political ideology dubbed by some as Islamism and Islam itself."

And some of these people - many in fact - are Muslims.

Wilders' film Fitna set out to demonstrate how the Koran promoted violence and terrorism. And he didn't have far to look to find extremist preachers who share his view of Islam. Wilders' error is not that he mistakes politicised Islam for the real thing, as Blears would claim: rather, it is that he imagines that a fundamentalist, literalist view of the Koran is the only authentic Islam going, and that by stressing intolerance, violence or the oppression of women the Islamists are being truer to Islam than the moderates. He likes to say, "there are moderate Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam". This is clearly nonsense. Like any religion, Islam is not words set out in a book. It is a life lived in the context of culture, tradition and human striving. It is not a fossil; it can change. It has, in fact, changed a great deal over the centuries, and the Islamist interpretation is in many ways historically anomalous.

But Blears is wrong too. She is wrong, first of all, to assume that because Islamism is a political ideology, it is not first and foremost a religious view. Plainly, it is. She claims that Islamism is "rooted in a twisted reading of Islam", and her evidence for this is that

The academics, scholars and imams I meet to discuss these issues tell me that the message of Islam is one of peace; and the followers of Islam I meet oppose the single narrative promulgated by Al-Qaeda, and certainly oppose violence.

The key word here is "certainly". Because the Islamist reading of the Koran is no more "twisted" than was the Protestants' reading of the Bible in the 16th century. Islamists can look to history, too, and see the triumphs of Islamic armies in centuries past, caliphs and sultans who won empires - even Mohammed himself - at the point of a sword, and did so in the name of God. Was the Prophet's understanding of the religion he founded "twisted" - or is it merely historically inconvenient?

The danger in invoking the "true" spirit of Islam is that there is no single authentic interpretation. Anyone who tries to impose one will run up against insuperable logical difficulties. This is especially true of a non-Muslim government like that of Britain. Here, for example, is part of Inayat Bunglawala's riposte to Hazel Blears:

For the past couple of years the government has adopted the opposite course of action and has instead been seeking to find partners among British Muslims who are prepared to parrot its own views on what are the main drivers behind the phenomenon of violent extremism and in return has been handing out millions of pounds in taxpayers' money to them. That strategy has clearly failed with the government's "partners" universally derided among British Muslims as stooges.

Back to Wilders in New York. A particular bugbear of his is the way in which the "liberal-left" establishment has, in his view, sold out its principles. Of course, he is usually described in the media as an "extreme right-winger", or some such. He's certainly a strong supporter of Israel; not the most obvious position for a Neo-Nazi to adopt, you might think, but there you go. He told his audience:

they [the Left] don’t care because they are blinded by their cultural relativism. Their disdain of the West is so much greater than the appreciation of our many liberties. And therefore, they are willing to sacrifice everything. The left once stood for women rights, gay rights, equality, democracy. Now, they favour immigration policies that will end all this. Many even lost their decency. Elite politicians have no problem to participate in or finance demonstrations where settlers shout “Death to the Jews”. Seventy years after Auschwitz they know of no shame.

Not much there for Hazel Blears to relate to, you might think. But how about this?

The liberal-left is historically concerned for the underdog, for oppressed peoples, for taking a stand against racism and imperialism. It is part of our political DNA. The problem today is that these valid concerns can be mutated into support for causes and organisations which are fiercely anti-liberal and populated by people whose hearts are filled with misogyny, homophobia and Jew-hatred.

It leads to British democrats who are sickened by the sight of the suffering of the Palestinian people allying themselves with people who advocate the violent destruction of an entire nation-state, a member of the United Nations, who believe that Jews were behind 9/11 and fled the twin towers before the attacks, and who believe there is a global conspiracy guiding the world's economy. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Liberals' pathological fear of being branded 'racist' or 'Islamophobic' can lead to ideological contortions: condoning or even forming alliances with groups which are socially conservative, homophobic, Anti-Semitic, and violent towards women.

Blears' own answer to this conundrum, strangely enough, is more robust debate. For example she says that

But the pendulum has swung too far. The quality of debate about religion in contemporary life - and by religion, I mean all faiths - is being sapped by a creeping oversensitivity.

This timidity "flies in the face of another of our traditions - open debate, rational inquiry, and plain old common sense", thinks Hazel. "We would do well to be a little less anxious and a little more robust." For example - here she brings in another topical example - "we should be confident about condemning the intolerance of Christian extremists such as Fred Phelps". No one, it is true, can accuse her government of not being "confident" in condemning that particular noisy but isolated and widely-ridiculed "pastor". The trouble is, they seem unable to see the difference between condemning an opinion and banning it.

Geert Wilders would like to see "a European First Amendment. In Europe", he says,

we should defend freedom of speech like you Americans do. In Europe freedom of speech should be extended, instead of restricted. Of course, calling for violence or unjustly yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre have to be punished, but the right to criticize ideologies or religions are necessary conditions for a vital democracy. As George Orwell once said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

Rightly or wrongly, Geert Wilders now sees himself as something of a free speech martyr. But it is the European elites' fear of debate and lack of confidence either in their own values or, more importantly, in their people's ability to make up their own minds that gives him that opportunity, and wins him support he probably doesn't deserve.
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Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Not quite the Oscars

You wait for ages for a blog award, and two come along at once. Well one award and one nod, but a sufficiently prestigious nod for it to feel like an award after Heresy Corner has, like Kate Winslet, languished for too long without even a nomination.

Yesterday the Heresiarch was bemused to find himself the recipient of a "Worthy Vanilla" award courtesy of the Belgian-based S&M blog Spanked Hortic. Previous winners (there have been only two) are Tim Berners-Lee, whose World Wide Web has done so much turn a disparate group of fetish enthusiasts into an international community; and the inventor of a gel-filled bicycle seat which has enabled many a submissive to cycle home from a spanking in relative comfort. Truly, I am not worthy. Indeed, I find it hard to see what my contribution to kinkdom has been, apart from taking more interest in the Max Mosley case than was probably good for me, and offering this space last week to the delightful Pandora.

The award comes complete with a (sadly incorporeal) cup inscribed "Thank you from the Heart of our Bottoms".

Rather more substantial, perhaps, is the inaugural George Orwell Prize for Blogs, which joins the well-established awards for political journalism and books. I received an invitation to "let my name go forward" some months ago and was asked to submit ten posts I was especially proud of. Such a procedure is bound to be self-selecting: in the event, around 85 fellow bloggers made a similar effort, with several of my personal favourites abstaining. Still, there were some fairly major names among the entrants, and I'm more than satisfied to find Heresy Corner making the long-list of twelve.

Here are some of the pathetic losers leading bloggers who didn't make the cut:

Archbishop Cranmer
Alex Hilton
Danny Finkelstein
Justin Webb
Melanie Phillips
Nick Robinson
Old Holborn


Still, enough about me. What of the competition? It's a mixed bag. The biggest name still in the competition, blog-wise, is probably Iain Dale. There are also two top BBC types, Mark Easton and Paul Mason, and Oliver Kamm, now of the Times. So no pressure. Joining them are a couple of top-flight Labour bloggers, Tom Harris MP (who blogs far too much for a serving MP, in my humble) and Hopi Sen. And there's a leavening of small fry, among whom I suppose I must count myself.

The name I'm most pleased to see on the list - and my tip, for what it's worth - is Alix Mortimer, a liberal democrat wholly worthy of the name (which these days is rare enough to be worth celebrating in itself). Too much to single out for praise, but here she is on the trouble the Lib Dems have with the mainstream media - and how they ended up sending automated nuisance calls to potential voters:

Journalistic writing is necessarily a pigeon-holing exercise. They have to relate one thing to another, make links between different events and concepts, to build up the newspaper’s outlook - a macrocosm of how an individual arrives at their worldview, really. Which is fine, so long as the key political concept you’re trying to advance is something journalists already recognise and have a label for. But they just don’t - en masse anyway - have one for liberalism. Their instinctive, natural grasp of what liberalism means is lacking. ...

Liberalism as a wider political movement has been splintered into environmentalism, pacificism, alternative living and the like more or less since the 1960s, and in abeyance as a high political creed for a century partly as a result. As individuals, journalists have lived through an era in which high politics is dominated by the twin blocs of socialism versus conservatism. No wonder they try to wodge our radical liberalism into mid-20th century Labour and Tory loaf tins. They’ve never known anything else. Most of them have never bothered learning anything else (this is what comes of studying Eng Lit at university instead of history).

I can relate to that. It's also why the mainstream press has been so blindsighted by New Labour's relentless authoritarianism, and were so confused by David Davis.

My other favourite on the list is Night Jack, a decent policeman with sensible ideas who regularly and brilliantly exposes the disastrous politicisation of the force. Another cause for celebration. Here he is on Jacqui Smith's recent embarrassment:

Home Secretary Klebb is arranging her expense claims in a way that would raise eyebrows amidst the bean counters in Alterdale or Smallmarket. Shocking. Who would have guessed that as she arbitrarily pulled the rug on back-dating our pay rise, she was quietly trousering her own allowances to the max. There’s restraint in public pay for you. Nice to see Ms Klebb stinting herself in the cause of the public purse that she holds so dear. Still I am not bitter. Multiple rules and plastic principles have been the order of the day in the higher reaches of public service for some years now.

That's the sort of Met Commissioner we need.

A distinguished panel of media insiders will now whittle the list down to a final six in a months' time. I don't expect Heresy Corner to be among them. But still, this is most gratifying.
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Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Blunkett, "friend of Liberty"

The 75th anniversary of Liberty has brought forth some unlikely encomiums, but few more unlikely than David Blunkett. So the news that even the most hardline home secretary (apart from most of the others) that New Labour ever produced thinks things have gone a bit far in the authoritarian direction would be worth celebrating, if true.

But of course it isn't.

There have been reports today that he has reservations about the data-sharing provisions in the new (and Frankensteinian) Coroners and Justice Bill - and that he will use a lecture at Essex University to call for "urgent clarification" of the government's proposals. On closer examination, he is suggesting little more than a PR exercise. He's certainly not repenting of his time in office, during which he earned the reputation (now being challenged by Jackboots Jacqui) of the most authoritarian home secretary in living memory. In an accompanying article, he comments that the view of him as a hardliner was a "misunderstanding". What he was actually doing, it turns out, was "freeing people from the fear and instability that leads to political alienation and the danger of a lurch to the right". What a depressingly limited and negative view of human nature. But at least his meaning is clear: if we don't pander to people's fears and prejudices they'll vote for the BNP.

But what does he mean when he says:

To make sense of a world in which rapid change and globalisation create genuine insecurity, we need benchmarks by which we can judge our actions and their long-term impact.


We need principles upon which we can base actions that, in the name of protecting freedom and decency, may otherwise become oppressive, intolerant of difference and self-destructive?

Blunkett contrasts "private enterprise surveillance and intrusion" with the wholly benign sort practised by government, oblivious to or uninterested in the difference between information freely (if at times foolishly) volunteered and that collected by the state using powers of legal compulsion and then made available to hundreds of thousands of public employees. His call for greater "clarity" in the scope of data sharing and surveillance are based mainly on possible inefficiency and negative public perception.

"We are not a surveillance state" he claims, accusing Dame Stella Rimington (who might be expected to know a surveillance state when she saw one) of "meanderings" and others of "pontificating" about "Big Brother Britain". "Only those who have lived in a police state can appreciate just what that term means" he adds. Perhaps he could have a word with Timothy Garton Ash, who recently contrasted the freedoms now available to the citizens of the former East Germany with the surveillance nightmare that Britain is now becoming. "I still cannot quite believe this is happening to my country" he wrote. He's not alone.

This is Blunkett's most striking suggestion:

There is a misconception that the database for biometric passports and ID cards might be misused. That's why I'm coming to the conclusion that we may have to consider simply making passports universal. If people wanted an easy-to-carry card, as with EU travel documents, they would be able to buy one voluntarily (with ID cards remaining compulsory for foreign nationals).

Now I can see what Blunkett's driving at. ID cards have something of an image problem. Even though the Home Office likes to produced biased surveys supposedly showing widespread support for the scheme, even the most knuckle-dragging bureaucrat realises that there is a large and growing army of dissenters. ID cards, for many, are an alien imposition, a sinister new development, unprecedented in peacetime in this country, which summon up images of police officers demanding to see people's papers. The phrase has an un-British, police statist ring to it.

Passports, on the other hand, sound much friendlier. They've existed as long as anyone can remember, and they summon up images of holidays and trips abroad. Of course, they also have less pleasant associations with queues and, since New Labour came to power, increasingly steep fees, but still, no-one's going to come out into the street shouting "No to passports". Familiarity, breeding inertia, makes the most abstractly intolerable things seem a normal and unbudgeable part of life; new things, by contrast, appear with all their faults exposed. It's why the poll tax was such a spectacular disaster when it was introduced in the late eighties, and also why the anachronistic TV licence survives.

When he was at the Home Office, Blunkett toyed with calling ID cards "entitlement cards", the thought being that by making the cards essential to access public services people would come to associate them with the health, education or benefits to which they were entitled. His latest passport idea is much the same. His solution would preserve the real dangers of the identity management system, with its mass registration, its multifunction database, its vast apparatus for monitoring and control of the population, and its inevitable mistakes (with terrifying consequences for individuals who lost their card, or whose details turned out to be wrong). But by disguising the ID card as a passport, Blunkett imagines that people will lose sight of what it is.

I assume he also hopes that by attempting to distance himself from the forseeable consequences of his own policies people will forget what he was like in office. Fat chance.
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Monday, 23 February 2009

The Sunken City and The Sun

A curious little story from late last week, which whizzed around the world for less than a day before being "explained", concerned the supposed discovery of the lost city of Atlantis on Google Ocean, the latest and possibly most impressive Google Earth add-on.

The original source appears to be The Sun. According to their report, an aeronautical engineer from Chester, one Bernie Bamford, spotted a "perfect rectangle the size of Wales lying on the bed of the Atlantic Ocean nearly 3½ miles down" while "he browsed through Google Ocean". The discovery of this grid pattern, "like a map of a vast metropolis" presented a mystery that, in the Sun's heightened prose, "had oceanographers and geophysicists captivated".

The paper even presented a bizarre column by Plato, either literally or (more likely) metaphorically ghost-written, in which the philosopher contended that the discovery "backs up the theories I outlined in my dialogues Timaeus and Critias back in 350BC". Let it not be said that The Sun doesn't make an effort to educate its readers. There was also a quote from Mr Bamford comparing the image to a ground-plan of Milton Keynes.

I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, leaving aside the obvious fact that the image was not the long-lost (or, to be more precise, non-existent) island civilisation. Something about the picture screamed "hoax", and I wondered if Google might not have planted the image themselves as part of a PR campaign.

Certainly the timing was, from the company's point of view, impeccable - Google Ocean was launched earlier this month, but many will have been tempted to go Atlantis-hunting themselves. The discovery also came just a week after another story, released in time for Valentine's Day (and also covered by The Sun) that a small heart-shaped island in the Adriatic had been "spotted on Google Earth". That item undoubtedly had Google's fingerprints all over it, and no "discoverers" were named. I have been unable to trace, or to find any previous reference to, an aeronautical engineer by the name of Bernie Bamford, so I have no idea if it was he who contacted The Sun, or indeed whether he exists.

In the event, it wasn't long before an official "explanation" from Google was forthcoming. According to a spokeswoman the grid pattern was, in fact, an "artefact of the mapping process". To be more technical:

Bathymetric (or sea floor terrain) data is often collected from boats using sonar to take measurements of the sea floor.

"The lines reflect the path of the boat as it gathers the data.

"The fact that there are blank spots between each of these lines is a sign of how little we really know about the world's oceans."

That last point was interpreted by the Sun as meaning the blank spots "couldn't be explained". I assume it means that the mapping process only collects data from places directly passed over by the boats, and that this data shows up as the grid pattern. This explanation seems plausible enough. Less clear is why it wasn't available when the report first emerged. Perhaps the good folk at Mountain View simply wanted to milk the suspense. The statement, when it came, included a good deal of background puff about the "many amazing discoveries" that had previously been made via Google Earth, including a forest in Mozambique.

The Sun did have a quote from "one of the world's leading experts on Atlantis", Dr Charles E Osler of New York State University, who allegedly described the picture as "fascinating":

The site is one of the most prominent places for the proposed location of Atlantis, as described by Plato. Even if it turns out to be geographical, this definitely deserves a closer look.

The quote from Dr Osler makes him sound like a confirmed Atlantologist rather than the serious academic he evidently is (he is currently curator of historical archaeology at NYSU). A hundred years ago there were (reasonably) serious scholars prepared to argue that Plato's Atlantis represented the vague memory of a fabulous lost civilisation, whose legacy perhaps survived in the cultures of Egypt and pre-Columbian America. These days the Lost City, like the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs, has become little more than journalistic polyfilla, though the hunt for a sunken city that might have given rise to the legend retains its appeal to the more romantic type of archaeologist. Pseudo-science aside, candidates for the "original" Atlantis are invariably to be found in or around the Mediterranean. The Cycladic island of Santorini, which blew its top around 1650 BC, is generally reckoned the most likely location - though an even more likely explanation is that the story was entirely made up.

I emailed Dr Orser, and he was kind enough to reply. It turns out that he was indeed contacted by a Sun reporter, Virginia Wheeler, who sent him a copy of the picture and invited his response. He confirmed my suspicions that the Sun quote misrepresented his views, but he sounded wrily resigned to the fact:

I told her that I was not one of the those people who think that Atlantis was a real place. I told her that my understanding was that the story was a morality tale invented by Plato, who never actually finished the story. I told her that believers in Atlantis point to the area of the Canary Islands because Plato said Atlantis was beyond the Pillars of Heracles, but that it was really Ignatius Donnelly who made this part of the fable popular....

She asked me whether I thought it deserved investigation and, as a scholar, I said "yes." Of course, I meant that we should find out whether it really is a feature of the mapping! She replied, "Well, we are a tabloid, so . . ." I took that to mean that they would write whatever they saw fit to write.

Orser is indeed an expert on Atlantis, and is currently writing a book on how Ignatius Donnelly, a nineteenth century American politician and writer, created the modern Atlantis industry. (Clearly something of an independent thinker, Donnelly also propounded the theory that the plays of Shakespeare were really written by Francis Bacon.) Donnelly made Atlantis "a real place" thinks Orser, where previously it had been seen as myth. He added,

I taught a course called "Fantastic Archaeology" for many years in which I lectured about Atlantis, but demonstrated why I believe it is not a real place. The object of the course was to teach students how archaeologists gather and evaluate evidence. So, I suppose it's really easy to become an expert on pseudo-archaeology.

Especially if you take the trouble to speak to journalists from The Sun.
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Sunday, 22 February 2009

On the topicality of Galileo

"I was astounded to discover how topical the issue of Galileo's trial still is in the Vatican", writes Colin Blakemore in the Observer. He is plugging his Channel 4 documentary, part of the History of Christianity series (uneven, but generally quite good) in which he tackles the thorny issue of religion v science.

I must say it doesn't surprise me. It would only surprise someone who thought the question at issue was whether the sun revolved around the earth, or vice versa, and that once that question was settled (it turns out that the earth revolves around the sun, sort of) there was nothing left for the church to do but issue a humiliating apology. But it was much more significant than that. More than anyone else, Galileo can be blamed (or congratulated) for driving a wedge between science and religion. Before his trial, the church neither endorsed nor condemned the heliocentric theory. Officially it taught the Ptolemaic universe, which seemed to be compatible with the Bible (it wasn't) and which matched closely with other facets of its theology (the notion that Jesus had "come down" from heaven, for example). But it was not a point of dogma: late medieval Christianity was not a form of Biblical fundamentalism.

Galileo deliberately set out to destroy the cosy consensus by which the ideas put forward by Copernicus were generally tolerated (if not officially supported) by the religious authorities and challenged them to disprove his version. In an open letter addressed to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany he argued that scientific statements apparently incompatible with scripture should either be accepted (in which case scripture would be reinterpreted) or repudiated - if they could be disproved. For him there was no middle way. He wrote:

As to propositions which are stated but not rigorously demonstrated, anything contrary to the Bible involved by them must be held undoubtedly false and should be proved so by every possible means.

The corollary of this was that:

Before a physical proposition is condemned it must be shown to be not rigorously demonstrated.

Galileo was (so he thought) challenging his detractors in the church hierarchy to put up or shut up. In that sense he was much closer to Dawkins than to the non-confrontational Charles Darwin, who never claimed that natural selection was incompatible with Christianity. He was not an atheist, but he was an early proponent of the view that science and religion had battles to fight on territory that overlapped. He would have had no truck with the argument that science and faith represented separate "magesteria" - that the one explained the "how" of things while the other explained the "why". For him, there was only one magesterium, one worldview in which everything had to be explained. And when the findings of observational science were set against the writings set out in scripture, scripture must ultimately cede the field.

By stressing the need to accept or to disprove his ideas about the nature of the solar system, for which he thought his discovery of the moons of Jupiter provided irrefutable evidence (it didn't) Galileo forced the church authorities back into a position of fundamentalism and opposition to science. Since they had most of the power, and since the Counter-Reformation was then in full flow, his stand could only be described as foolhardy. I suppose that is why he has gone down as science's great hero-martyr.

In a speech he made in Parma in 1990, the then Cardinal Ratzinger claimed that the trial - which ended with Galileo forced to recant his scientific discoveries, and confined to years of house arrest - was "little regarded at the time" and only later became a "myth of the Enlightenment... the force of progress and liberation of humanity from the chains of ignorance that kept it impotent in the face of nature". The future pontiff also quoted approvingly the words of the philosopher Paul Feyerabend

The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.

When these remarks were dredged up years later, the pope was roundly condemned as an obscurantist, defending one of his church's darkest hours. In fact he was thinking like a postmodernist. He was denying the special status of scientific knowledge - arguing that since Galileo was not right in every particular he was not, in some fundamental sense, right where the Inquisition was wrong. He went on to describe the current status of the trial as "a symptomatic case that illustrates the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology", and even entertained the speculation that if the church had been tougher on Galileo there would have been no atomic bomb.

Ratzinger a postmodernist? Bizarre, I know, but there you are.

It is trivial to say that Galileo was right about the mechanics of the solar system. It is much less trivial to argue that, therefore, Galileo was correct in seeing his scientific discovery as a defeat for religion. The church of the time, a less confrontational account of the trial might say, overreached itself by trying to exert control over an area of knowledge that did not belong to it. It knew about theology and salvation: by attempting to control science it was acting outside its natural competence. Today, the same charge is made against the "new atheists". His opponents charge Richard Dawkins with "scientific fundamentalism", of asserting that there is no limit to what might be brought within the sphere of scientific explanation.

While it is clearly nonsensical to describe Dawkins and the Ayatollah Khomeini as occupying two extremes of the secular-religious continuum, scientific realists and scriptural literalists do have something in common with Galileo and his clerical opponents: a unitary conception of knowledge. All religions make claims that are incompatible with science, however much they pretend to themselves and others that this is not so. It is incompatible with science (as it is currently understood) to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or was born of a virgin, or that an angel dictated the Koran, or that the human body is inhabited by a soul that previously dwelt in other bodies.

Ultimately, the notion of non-overlapping magesteria will not work, because it rests upon a denial of the possibility of absolute truth which both science and religion assert. Either the consistency of the laws of physics is dependent upon the forbearance of a Supreme Being (science is a subset of religion) or religion is a purely human construct/ genetic predisposition which might have valuable points to make about morality and personal behaviour, but is ultimately wrong. Religion and science may have different general concerns, but at important points - such as the nature of the universe, or the nature of human beings - they are interested in the same things, but expect different answers. Conflict is therefore inevitable.

It's not surprising to find Colin Blakemore in Galileo's camp. He writes:

Perhaps we humans come with a false model of ourselves, which works well as a means of predicting the behaviour of other people - a belief that actions are the result of conscious intentions. Then could the pervasive human belief in supernatural forces and spiritual agents, controlling the physical world, and influencing our moral judgments, be an extension of that false logic, a misconception no more significant than a visual illusion?

I'm dubious about those "why" questions: why are we here? Why do we have a sense of right and wrong? Either they make no sense or they can be recast as the kind of "how" questions that science answers so well.

For him, in other words, religion is something that science will ultimately explain, or even explain away. That is not the inevitable outcome, however likely it may appear. Even the bus slogan only claimed that there is "probably" no God. Dawkins believes that there is almost certainly no God. Other scientists believe that there is a God. That is a perfectly reasonable belief to have; what is more questionable is the assertion that God will always be outside or beyond scientific explanation. If God exists, or the soul exists, then they can in principle be known. Science is the procedure by which knowledge is discovered. If God exists, science will one day find him. Science has nothing to fear from such an eventuality, although scientific atheists would find themselves with some difficult explaining to do.

The danger for religion, of course, is that science will one day - perhaps soon - discover a theory of consciousness, a theory of cosmology, a theory of the origin of morality and of religious experience that, put together provide an entire explanation of both the nature of things and the phenomenon of religion. That really would be curtains for the God hypothesis; and I personally doubt that religion could survive it. It would have been exposed as a placebo, and placebos only work if you believe that they are genuine drugs.

The result is a strange inversion of Pascal's famous wager. One should bet that science, rather religion, is true, because while science may one day either prove, or destroy, religion, religion will ultimately have to accept science's answer.
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Friday, 20 February 2009

Pastor Phelps damns us all to Hell...

...but especially Jacqui Smith

"Some Godforsaken little place called Bass-ingstoke is planning to produce a disgusting little play about a little pervert..."

"What "Home Secretary" Jacqui Smith has done is ban God from the United Kingdom and brought down his inevitable curse. God hates England, land of the curse of the Sodomites. Amen."

In other Westboro-related news, Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti has finally gone on the radio to express a thought about this and the Geert Wilders case. It didn't amount to much; she sounded as though the words were being extracted from her mouth with pliers. But she did at least bring herself to say that the government has gone too far with its determination to ban anyone whose opinions might provoke more than a stifled yawn. She also made the point that banning the likes of Wilders and Phelps only brings them more publicity. No shit, Shami.

At a basic human level, the right of the Phelps family to annoy the burghers of Basingstoke with their ugly perversion of Christianity may not be up there with freedom from torture or indefinite detention without trial. But cases like this affect the whole mood of a country. Troublemakers and criminals have been banned from these shores for years. Since last October, however, the Home Office have instituted a new draconian policy of banning anyone who attracts negative coverage in the press. The result is gesture politics at its cheapest and most unprincipled, where government ministers - and publicity-seeking MPs of all parties - can demonstrate their commitment to harmony, diversity and human rights by piously calling for anyone who disagrees with them to be locked out.

The country that allowed Voltaire and Karl Marx - "troublemakers" both - to come here to preach against religion and the status quo now wants to build a wall around itself, within which only bland, pre-approved ideas may the thought or expressed. In any era it would be depressing. In the age of the Internet it simply makes our government look prim and ridiculous. But then what's new?
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A view from the bottom

An insider's take on spanking, S&M and the new porn law

This is a guest post by Pandora Blake
. Please follow the link. 

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Thursday, 19 February 2009

Another pointless rant about New Labour

On the matter of our over-priced, under-performing railways, the new-look Jackart has an excellent point to make:

An interesting aside is that though there is no trade-off between liberty and security, there is between liberty and rail punctuality, with New Labour alone amongst authoritarian Governments failing to make the railways work. The reason is the same as all New Labour failure. They are too fond of "eye-catching initiatives", wasting money on consultants and worthless apparatchiks enforcing "diversity" rather than investing time and energy in delivery of service.

How horribly true. Did the trains really run on time under communism, though? Nothing much else worked properly in Eastern Europe - which, more than the abstract desire for more liberty, is what produced the revolutions of 1989. The governments of the Eastern Bloc used violence and repression, and as much surveillance as technology allowed (not a patch on New Labour Britain, though), but their animating spirit was bureaucratic. They were obsessed with targets, too, five year plans and output quotas which did at least have the aim (if not the result) of producing things, rather than, like most New Labour targets, statistics and waffle. But the gap between appearance and reality ultimately became too large, and the regimes tumbled into the chasm thus created.

Timothy Garton-Ash, who knows a thing or two about totalitarianism (having lived in East Germany for several years) is the latest person to have finally woken up to what is happening here. "The East Germans are now more free than we are," he writes, "at least in terms of law and administrative practice in such areas as surveillance and data collection". Of course, the East Germans now live (so to speak) in West Germany, a country created by the wartime Allies with the deliberate aim of making another Hitler impossible. Strong constitutional safeguards were introduced to constrain any future government's will to power. In Britain, such safeguards were always lacking: instead, we had conventions, tacit understandings, and (by and large) a willingness on the part of politicians not to push things too far.

All these things belonged to the "old Britain" that Tony Blair was so keen to sweep away. They were fuddy-duddy, inefficient, not New. But with the twin exceptions of the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act, new guarantees of liberty have not been introduced. And even in those cases the government has repeatedly attempted to sidestep its own laws.

Garton Ash quotes an alarming statistic from Dominic Raab, author of The Assault on Liberty: New Labour "has hyperactively produced more Home Office legislation than all the other governments in our history combined". More than was needed to defeat Hitler, save democracy from the Soviet Union or combat terrorism at the height of the IRA bombing campaign. And that's just the Home Office.

Other countries, as TGA recognises, have introduced their own forms of repression: the US Patriot Act has much to alarm civil libertarians, for example. But "the peculiarity of Britain is that we have nibbled away individual liberty on so many different fronts." Nor is there any end in sight: to listen to Jacqui Smith or the unelected, unaccountable Robocops of ACPO is to sense that they have barely even begun. ID cards have yet to be "rolled out"; face recognition technology will soon be deployed nationwide; the 42 days issue is not dead, merely sleeping; despite promises to the contrary, the bill allowing secret inquests has been re-introduced. Since October, the Home Office have introduced a policy of banning from these shores anyone whose opinions they find uncongenial. Last week it was Geert Wilders, this week it was the Westboro Baptists. Who next? The Dalai Lama?

"How can a government of intelligent and often liberal-minded persons behave so illiberally, arrogantly and stupidly?" wonders TGA. "What screw have they got loose? What nerve is missing?"

Because they're not particularly intelligent. Because most of them were never liberal-minded to begin with, and those that were have convinced themselves that because they have "tolerant", "progressive", "liberal" values then no harm can be done by any laws they introduced. Because they have been bamboozled by IT experts and security consultants with shiny new toys. Because they don't trust ordinary people to know right from wrong, safe from dangerous or their arse from their elbow. Because our MPs are so busy stuffing their pockets or slavering over minor government appointments that they can no longer give a toss. Because an over-worked, trash-fed populace has lost the energy to resist and the attention-span even to notice. Because they're in power and they can.

With the vast resources that have been devoted during the boom years to their vainglorious attempt to recast society in their image, New Labour could have given us a world-class transport system, schools that turned out rounded citizens rather than initiative-lacking, functionally illiterate grade-achieving machines, even (whisper it quietly) free, high-quality dental treatment for all. Well it's too late now. There's a saying doing the rounds in the wake of Madoff and now Stanford - when the tide goes out you can see who's swimming naked. The shrivelled genitalia of this government is now on display for all to see.
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Another Unnecessary Ban

UPDATE The Sun is reporting that Pastor Phelps and his daughter have indeed been denied entry. "Both these individuals have engaged in unacceptable behaviour by inciting hatred against a number of communities" said the Home Office.

This is intolerable - even if, as seems likely, they never planned to come in the first place. Labour have a mad addiction to bans: bans on people, things, activities and opinions they don't happen to like. Whatever happened to debate? Whatever happened to the freedom to express dissent? What are these people afraid of? The only hate the Westies inspire is against themselves. They are risible and pathetic: but they are no danger to a strong society. Unlike the present deranged government.

Peter Tatchell is quoted as saying, "If Geert Wilders and Louis Farrakhan have been banned as preachers of hate then so should Fred and Shirley Phelps". His logic is impeccable; but following this logic will lead to increasing numbers of these arbitrary and coercive bans, until no-one is allowed into the country who hasn't signed a statement endorsing New Labour values. The answer is not more bans, but fewer. Only people who directly threaten or incite violence should be banned. No-one should be banned for their opinions. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Woe Unto Basingstoke

I have to say I'm thrilled to learn - via the Telegraph - that hate-fuelled fundamentalists from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas are on their way to Britain. If a statement on their website is to be believed, Friday evening will find a delegation from the church standing outside Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke, where performers "plan to further enrage the Living God by putting on the farce known commonly as The Laramie Project."

"We will picket them, and see if they actually believe those lies they tell about how tolerant and accepting Brits are."

For too long we in our grey, conformist, PC-ravaged island have been spared the full-bodied confrontationalism of that renowned ecclesiastical body. British Christians are so mealy-mouthed. We have Christian Voice, it is true, which is currently campaigning against Kent Police's sponsorship of a school essay competition connected with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Month. The other day Stephen Green thundered,

I have no respect for police officers who wish to corrupt young children by insinuating into them the idea that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality. I spent part of this morning mucking out a cattle yard. It brought home to me that a man who indulges in sodomy cannot be paddling with both oars in the water.

But all his lot ever do about the such outrages is stand around singing hymns. The concision and expressive force of the Westboros' seminal slogan "God Hate Fags" is sadly absent from Green's windy imprecations.

The Westies (in case you didn't know) are the followers and - mostly - the descendants of the Rev Fred Phelps, although nowdays their effective leader is his daughter Shirley. Their doctrines boil down to the belief that everyone apart from themselves will go to hell, although they have a particular obsession with homosexuality. They are most famous for picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they'll turn up to any event they can portray as revealing the depths of depravity to which the United States has sunk.

Until now we in Britain have had to make do with TV documentaries by the likes of Louis Theroux and Keith Allen. So the prospect of seeing their legendary placards is alluring, almost. But it's rather mysterious why, of all the British debauchery and homosexualism they might wish to protest about, the Westies should choose to picket an obscure sixth form college in, of all places, Basingstoke. They must be among the first people in history ever to go there voluntarily.

And they have a coruscating message for us:

Just because you rage against God and make laws that say you cannot use "hate speech" (a/k/a - you may not speak of the Bible standards) in the UK does NOT mean you will not get the message that God Almighty intends for you to get. God Hates England; Your Queen Is A Whore; You Hate God; God Hates You; You're Going to Hell; Matt Is In Hell; Hell Is Real Ask Matt; God Hates Fags (Buggers); Obey God, etc. Some of the best Bible preaching in the history of the world came out of that dark dismal land, but now it is full of all abominations! God will shortly destroy the UK and the world, but not until they have gotten the plain, clear message so that they will be WITHOUT EXCUSE!

The Laramie Project, put on in Hampshire by a gay theatre group, tells the story of Matt Shepard, a gay teenager tortured and murdered in small town America in 1998. The Westies have been picketing the play wherever it has shown in the States, reassuring theatre-goers that its hero is burning in Hell. So the Basingstoke campaign is in one sense merely an extension of that. But it also seems to mark the beginning of a new push to alert the whole world to its doomed, "fag-enabling" sinfulness. They are also visiting Melbourne, where they plan to inform Australians that God caused the recent bush fires that claimed so many lives.

The election of Barack Obama, who they are convinced is the Antichrist, has convinced them of the imminence of the End Times. Next month they will be protesting outside Chicago Law School:

They let that fraudulent freak teach "Constitutional Law" in that place. They let him hone his oratory skills (little tricks of the trade like he keeps shifting from one foot to another and swiveling his head and darting his eyes back and forth so everyone in the room believes he is speaking directly to them - so very clever, don't you know?)! SHAME ON THIS PLACE! God has sent them a strong delusion and caused them to trust in lies and LIARS!

Britain is also ripe for their missionary activities, being notoriously irreligious and sinful - the best efforts of Stephen Green notwithstanding. Check out our UK page at, they suggest. So I did. The entry for the UK singles out our "filthy manner of life", illustrated by a picture which appears to show Prince Charles fondling the breasts of a female army cadet. According to the write-up, there are "more annual fag-sponsored events in the U.K. than there are in Doomed America". And it helpfully lists some of them, including "Bear Pride" (you mean that isn't for children who love their teddies, or even politically-aware ursines?) and EuroPride in Stockholm, the mention of which raises doubts about the Westies' sense of geography. "There is also a highly-coveted annual “Pink List” which lists the top 100 fags in the United Kingdom." (So there is; it's compiled by the Independent. The Labour-loving, intimately-pierced Today presenter Evan Davis was at number 1 last year - I imagine next time it will be Mandy).

The United Kingdom is fully given over to fags, and proud of it – they are grevious sinners before their God like ancient Sodom, and they shall receive the same firey end. They roundly declare that what God says is an abomination is in fact an innocent lifestyle to be aspired to and rewarded.

Peter Hitchens himself couldn't have put it better.

In the States, the Westies are widely loathed but tolerated: it is in the robust American tradition of free speech. They even managed to get away last year with publicly burning the Koran. Our own tradition of free speech is rather less robust these days. In 2001 the elderly street preacher Harry Hammond was arrested and fined for holding a placard which read "Stop immorality! Stop homosexuality! Stop lesbianism!" - mild stuff compared with the kind of slogans the Westboro Baptists like to hold.

And now, of course, under the Geert Wilders principle no-one with vaguely controversial views must ever be allowed into this country, ever, just in case they say something and someone listening is unable to contain their offence. Apparently the local Conservative MP Maria Miller has contacted the Home Secretary to "see what action the Government may be considering in relation to possible attempts by the Phelps family to enter the country". She condemned the church's "highly inflammatory language and behaviour" and said the young people who had worked on the play would not be intimidated by threats.

"The most important thing is that a production that is trying to promote tolerance goes ahead and that's what I'm focusing on achieving," she said primly.

Well sod that. What's she expecting, a riot? We're a poor excuse for a country if we can't handle a few deluded nutjobs standing outside a theatre with placards. Ben Summerskill of Stonewall has more sense when he says that banning the Westies would merely give them more undeserved publicity. They've already sent Miller an open letter demanding

a written guarantee of safe passage for all our missionary members... who are prepared to journey, at our own expense, to preach the gospel in the UK. We have a commission from the Lord Jesus Christ... We trust that you are not prepared to counteract the Lord Jesus Christ.

Indeed not. Let them come. Let them be laughed at. Let them depart. Why should Americans have all the fun?

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Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Remember what he said about "British liberty"?

The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk, wrote Hegel: his only really memorable phrase. He meant, I think, that philosophers tended to improve with age (clearly he never met Bertrand Russell); more broadly it implies that you only realise what's been going on when it's already too late. That is certainly true of many liberties we used to take for granted. After more than a decade of repressive legislation it is becoming common to hear some distinguished pillar of the Establishment warning that we are "in danger" of "sleepwalking" into a police state, a surveillance society, a privacy dystopia or some combination of the three. The former Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham is the latest:

In times of heightened tension, caused by war, terrorism or other public emergency, ministers tend to exert their powers to the limits of what they believe to be politically acceptable and legally permissible.

Actually, your lordship, it's not just in time of "heightened tension" that they try it on. As Michael Portillo admitted on last week's Moral Maze, that is the natural tendency of government - not just ministers, either, but the whole apparatus of the civil service, the police and the security services. Abuse of government power "isn't something that happens exceptionally, it happens all the time". War, terrorism, or exaggerated fear of war or terrorism, simply provide opportunities that they might otherwise lack to justify and intensify their exertion of power. A climate of fear enables them to claim to be defending liberty and the rule of law even as they dismantle it.

A few months after he came to office, Gordon Brown made a much-praised speech about "British liberty". I didn't think much of it (though no-one was reading Heresy Corner at the time): I noticed all the Blair-like references to the "new" world we had supposedly entered, and the promises of massive data-sharing, the implications of which are only now being noticed. He complained that "the public dialogue in our country has undervalued the importance of liberty", as though his government's addiction to surveillance and galloping police powers had nothing to do with it.

Despite all this, the speech was welcomed by many as signalling the end of the dark days of Tony Blair, who treated traditional civil liberties as part of the outmoded apparatus of "conservatism" that a shiny modern Britain was better off without. And to have a prime minister speak of liberty as something important, even if he didn't seem to have much idea what it entailed, was enough of a novelty to have some naive souls cheering in the aisles. He even made the speech at a meeting of Liberty. This sort of empty symbolism impresses some people, though I would have taken it more seriously if he had delivered the remarks to ACPO.

Most of the enthusiasm might be put down to the brain-numbing effects of Gordon's "honeymoon". But the speech did have its high points - for example, this:

Indeed the character of our country will be defined by how we write the next chapter of British liberty - by whether we do so responsibly and in a way that respects and builds on our traditions, and progressively adds to and enlarges rather then reduces the sphere of freedom.

Or this:

To claim that we should ignore the claims of liberty when faced with the needs of security would be to embark down an authoritarian path that I believe would be unacceptable to the British people.

Fine words. But, a year and a half later, it has become obvious even to many who cheered that speech that far from writing the "next chapter of British liberty" Brown has been going back through earlier chapters and striking most of the contents through with a red pen, that far from respecting our traditions he has trashed them, and that instead of adding to and enlarging, he has progressively been reducing the sphere of freedom. Until today we find yet another former head of MI5 warning that modern Britain increasingly resembles a police state.

In the course of the speech, Brown promised several practical steps to realise his vision of enshrining liberty at the centre of British life. He singled out six main areas in which new rights would be created to safeguard traditional freedoms:

1. respecting and extending freedom of assembly, new rights for the public expression of dissent

2. respecting freedom to organise and petition, new freedoms that guarantee the independence of non-governmental organisations

3. respecting freedoms for our press, the removal of barriers to investigative journalism

4. respecting the public right to know, new rights to access public information where previously it has been withheld

5. respecting privacy in the home, new rights against arbitrary intrusion

6. in a world of new technology, new rights to protect your private information and respecting the need for freedom from arbitrary treatment, new provision for independent judicial scrutiny and open parliamentary oversight

Has any of that been accomplished? On the contrary, in every one of these areas government and the police have been given new powers to encroach on basic freedoms:

1. By "new rights for the public expression of dissent" he appeared to mean repealing the ban, introduced by Tony Blair, on unauthorised protests near Westminster and Whitehall - a law that became a national scandal when peace campaigner Maya Evans was convicted for reading out a list of soldiers killed in Iraq. Brown promised in his speech to "review the law to ensure that people's right to protest outside the very heart of our democracy - the House of Commons - is not subject to unnecessary restrictions". It's a bit rich to describe as a "new right" the restoration of a freedom that was only taken away - to widespread howls of outrage - by his own government. But in any event the prohibition is still in force, as is the notorious s44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 under which Walter Wolfgang was ejected from the Labour party conference and numerous journalists and campaigners have been harassed. Meanwhile, other restrictions continue to increase. Yesterday it became illegal to photograph the police - in theory the ban only applies if it would be "useful to terrorists", in practice it will probably be used to prevent people recording evidence of police wrongdoing.

2. By "guaranteeing the independence of non-governmental organisations", it appears Brown had in mind giving "charities" the "independence and the right to have their voice heard and to campaign on the issues that matter to them". In other words, to use their funds for blatant political campaigning. Many of these "charities" are in fact funded by the government, and use their new-found freedom to campaign for more laws (often, by coincidence, laws already in the pipeline). So while this aim might have been realised, the effect on freedom can hardly be described as positive.

3. Brown stated in the speech that there was "more we can do to ensure that freedom of expression and legitimate journalism are protected". Since then we've had the case of Sally Murrer, the journalist prosecuted for having received leaked information from a police officer (the case collapsed when evidence emerged of outrageous abuses of her human rights), Shiv Malik, whose "offence" was to have been taken in by the fantasies of self-declared ex Islamist Hassan Butt, and Damian Green, arrested because he was publicising information embarrassing to the government. Brown then said:

Last year, in a draft bill, we published proposals which would limit media access to coroners' courts. Having undertaken extensive consultation we have now decided not to go ahead with these proposals.

Which is presumably why the virtually unaltered proposals are now contained in the Coroners and Justice Bill, currently making its malign way through Parliament.

4. Brown claimed that:

Because liberty cannot flourish in the darkness, our rights and freedoms are protected by the daylight of public scrutiny as much as by the decisions of Parliament or independent judges

and that

Public information does not belong to Government, it belongs to the public on whose behalf government is conducted.

This must explain why Labour fought tooth and nail to exclude MPs expenses from the Freedom of Information Act

5. Brown stated that "I am aware of concerns that have been expressed about the powers of public authorities to enter homes and business premises without permission" and promised a review. He admitted that there were "more than 250" provisions granting power to enter homes and premises without permission. There still are.

He also said this:

In the last year we have tried, in the interests of protecting the privacy of the home dweller, to regularise the circumstances in which bailiffs have permission to enter homes. But I believe we can go much further.

It was presumably in the "interests of protecting privacy", that Brown has now made it legal, for the first time in English history, for bailiffs to break into people's homes and use "force" on householders.

6. Brown promised "new rights to protect your private information" but has instead, in this year's Coroners and Justice Bill, proposed vast powers of data-sharing which will dissolve the invisible walls between government departments - and in many cases enabling information to be shared with outside agencies as well. The effects of this proposal are devastating for privacy, opening up massive opportunities for identity fraud and blackmail as well as recasting the balance between the citizen and the state. It has been condemned by the BMA and by the House of Lords as well as by privacy campaigners, and most recently by the British Computer Society who point out that the bill "runs counter to the intentions and provisions of the Data Protection Act (DPA)" and "severely curtails the independence of the Information Commissioner". The BCS's Ian Ryder comments

As past experience suggests, it is unwise to rely on the benevolence of a government to sensitively deploy such wide-reaching and general powers as these. In the wrong hands, it would permit the restriction - and ultimately the destruction - of the right to personal and corporate data privacy.

But even in his supposed speech on "liberty", Brown was quite open about his enthusiasm for what is euphemistically termed "transformational government", calling it "the great prize of the information age". His answer then, as now, to any fears caused by the piling up of enormous quantities of personal data is that there should be "safeguards" against loss or misuse. But the only effective safeguard is not to allow data sharing in the first place. He spoke of "winning people's trust in the ways in which information is held and used". In other words, it's not a case of preserving liberty or protecting privacy. It's all about PR.

At the time, what struck me most about the speech was its two-facedness, on the one hand promising reviews and "new rights", on the other redefining liberty as something that not only had nothing to fear from a hyperactive government, but actually benefited from it. Looking back, however, what is striking is that most of the laws Gordon Brown promised to roll back, he has extended and that most of the freedoms he promised to extend, he has curtailed.
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Monday, 16 February 2009

A lifeboat for Gordon

As Kipling might have recast his recipe for success, had he been thinking of politics, "If you can keep your job when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you..." Gordon Brown is clinging on for dear life, but the polls are terrible (for him) and likely to get worse. And as it becomes clear that he did not, after all, save the world, or even HBOS (though he did manage to wreck Lloyds), as he continues to refuse to apologise, the mutterings within his own ranks have begun again.

In political parties at times of crisis, the delusion usually takes hold that everything can be redeemed by the simple expedient of changing the leader. I'm not a natural Brownophobe, and I still maintain Gordon is not wholly to blame for the situation in which we now find ourselves as a nation. Tony Blair shares the responsibility. So do they all. But that's scarcely the point any more: he's finished, Labour is finished, and quite possibly the whole country is finished, too, at least for more years to come than most of us would wish to contemplate. Leadership manoeuvres and reports of leadership manoeuvres provide, for a while at least, satisfying displacement activities. But how to get rid of him?

Jackie Ashley has heard a rumour, a story "doing the rounds among a few senior Labour people at Westminster". At the grand G20 summit in April - the choice of London as a venue is rather like hosting a conference on the future of cross-Atlantic travel on board the Titanic - it will be agreed by all concerned that Something Must Be Done. And that something may well involve "the need for a new global financial regulator". Apparently Angela Merkel thinks that Gordon Brown would be the ideal person to head this new international body. "she is said to be quietly pushing the idea behind the scenes and getting quite a good reaction from other leaders". That famous German sense of humour, perhaps.

Allegedly, this tidbit "comes from quite close to the inner core". Can she mean Mandelson? Or Ed Balls? Ooh, Jackie, you tease. [Apparently it might be Harriet Harman. But does she really count as well-informed?]

There is a flaw in this plan so obvious that even Ms Ashley has noticed it:

After the events of the past few weeks, culminating in the Lloyds-HBOS fiasco, Brown's CV as financial regulator is - how shall we put it? - looking a little tarnished. It was meant to be a brilliant coup, keeping both banks in the private sector, limiting taxpayer exposure and showing Brown's deft use of private contacts. That isn't how it looks now.

The trouble goes rather deeper than that, though, doesn't it? It was the regulatory decisions Gordon Brown made in his early days as chancellor that have led directly to the current disaster. As HBOS whistleblower Paul Moore put it yesterday, "The failure goes right to the heart of the system - to the internal supervisory system and right to the top of government."

There's also the years of dodgy accounting and rampant overspending that have, for little obvious benefit, left the public finances looking like the balance sheet of RBS.

Moore put it perfectly:

Brown swaggers around holding himself out as the economic saviour of the world with a level of hubris that defies belief. But does he ever acknowledge that it was he, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, who presided functionally over the economic strategy that got us into this mess in the first place?

It was Moore's offence, as the head of risk assessment, in drawing attention to the precarious finances of HBOS that led the bank's CEO Sir James Crosby to dismiss him. Crosby was then appointed as deputy chairman of the Farcical Services Authority, presumably by an identical process of logic that would lead to Brown being appointed as global panjandrum of regulation. Except that in Crosby's case he got his official position before everyone realised he had destroyed his own bank.

And even allowing for his failure to regulate the British financial system properly (perhaps the idea is he will have learned from experience) Brown hardly seems to have the personality to handle such a diplomatically sensitive role.

Such objections are, though, rather beside the point. Gordon Brown might be the worst possible person for the job, but he has a number of clear advantages.

- He needs what Ashley calls a "lifeboat".

- He's a politician, and these jobs always go to politicians.

- It would enable him to continue being influential even after he has been eased out of office.

- According to Ashley, Nicolas Sarkozy would find it a convenient way of getting Brown out the way. This, of course, implies that it is pretty much a non-job.

- And let's face it, he isn't going to out-earn tony Blair or Bill Clinton on the international speech circuit

There is, though, a potential problem with the scenario. Blair, it has also been strongly hinted, wants to be the first president of Europe. The Guardian recently reported that he is "increasingly willing to put himself forward for the job if it comes with real powers to intervene in defence and trade affairs". So while Blair is running the EU, Brown will be reconstructing the global financial system. Between them, they will Save the World. Or perhaps they'll go back to feuding, like they always used to. What they between them did to Britain, they will do to the entire planet. Are the rest of the world's leaders really prepared to let that happen?
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Sunday, 15 February 2009

Accounting for Faith

The Observer have been taking a look at the accounts of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. And very interesting they are too. The report tells us that the fund received £3.6 million during its first year to spend on its various projects, which range from getting churches and mosques to distribute mosquito nets (though what special expertise religious organisations are supposed to have in that area escapes me) to funding student scholarships. In fact, the quoted figure is almost a year old - the accounts date end April 2008. According to the write-up on the foundation's website, the report "is first and foremost the story of beginnings and preparation, a year in which, in many ways, the current fast pace of progress and change is only adumbrated and barely glimpsed". I suppose that means the foundation now has far more money to spend.

The report comments wryly that "while many charities are having trouble raising funds, not to mention attracting the suitably connected personnel necessary to achieve their goals, the Blairs are encountering no such problems" (Cherie has her own foundation). So where's the money coming from? Much of it, according to "speculation", comes from "wealthy benefactors in the Middle East". That could mean many things, of course, but is mostly likely to mean the rulers of oil-rich Gulf kingdoms and the like, with whom as PM Blair always cultivated close relationships. The present king of Saudi Arabia, coincidentally, has been active in promoting "inter-faith" activities at the UN and elsewhere, though rather less so in his own country, where Wahhabi Islam remains the only legally permissible religion. The king convened a conference last year which Blair - a prominent attendee - hailed as "bold, courageous and potentially far-reaching".

If the Blair Foundation (BlairFaith?) is indeed getting funding from the Middle East in such a sensitive area this must raise serious questions about the foundation's objectivity. Among its aims, for example, is an ambition to improve religious literacy" through the production of "'high-quality educational resources' that will be distributed in UK schools". On the website, we learn that they intend "to identify the best resources and practices from across the world and ensure that these are made visible and accessible to all." Which sounds perfectly reasonable: but can we be sure the foundation's paymasters will have no influence whatever on the content of these educational materials?

The line between the religious and the political has become increasingly blurred recently, as the events of last week have amply confirmed. And it's part of the explicit purpose of BlairFaith to connect the spiritual and the temporal internationally. According to the foundation's mission statement, "to promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world." Not respect and understanding between faiths, note, but about faiths. Perhaps I'm reading too much into some clumsy grammar - but given the second part of the statement I don't think so. Blair clearly believes that being the world's Mr Faith is a ticket to continued influence and power.

The Observer also reveals the identities of some of the advisers who sit on the foundation's grandly-named "council". They include Mustafa Cerić, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia. He was the one, you may remember, who recently claimed that God had rigged the US election to ensure victory for Barack Obama. There's also the evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who to some liberals' dismay was invited to deliver a prayer at Obama's inauguration. Like Cerić, Warren is generally considered a liberal, despite describing gay marriage as equivalent to incest or paedophilia. His views are less important to Blair, I suspect, than his relationship with Obama. Although no longer in power, Tony has managed seemlessly to transfer his affections from Bush to Obama, so that the foreign leader more closely identified than any other with Dubya's discredited policies wsa hailed by the new president just the other week as "my good friend Tony Blair". You have to hand it to him, he's one of the world's greatest networkers. Read the rest of this article