Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Valuing Values

Gordon Brown has been giving his "values" speech again, this time at St Paul's cathedral. Last week he delivered it at the European parliament, last month at the US Congress. Each time he introduces a slight modification. He told the Americans that the United States was the true home of the values - "shared values", "enduring values" - which he imagines define his premiership. He told the Brussels gravy-trainers that Europe subsisted in "the common values of people, now represented in this Parliament". Grammatically that's rather ambiguous. Does he mean that the people (who share values) are represented in the parliament (technically true, though it seldom feels like that)? Or does he mean to imply that it's the values that are represented by the parliament? Surely not.

Whatever. There were fourteen mentions of "values" in the Europe speech, eighteen today. An inflation in values, or at least in words about values, almost worthy of Jacqui Smith's expenses claim. They are "enduring values", "shared global values" and even "the values we celebrate in our everyday lives" which, somehow, "we must reshape our global economic system" to respect. In a passage copied almost word for word from his Europe speech - he must think it especially meaningful - he asserted that "most people want a market that is free, but never values-free, a society that is fair but not laissez faire", and that "across the world our task is to agree global economic rules that reflect our enduring values."

He thinks that "values" are not only separate from the market, but virtually incompatible with it. The "free market" is, in Brown's view, comprised of recklessness, selfishness and greed, and is thus only acceptable when firmly controlled by, one assumes, politicians:

But as we are discovering to our considerable cost, the problem is that without transparent rules to guide them, free markets can reduce all relationships to transactions, all motivations to self interest, all sense of value to consumer choices, all sense of worth to a price tag So unbridled and untrammeled, they can become the enemy of the good society.


Furthermore:

The truth is that the virtues we admire most and make society flourish - hard work, taking responsibility, being honest, being fair - these are not values that spring from the market, they are the values we bring to it. They don’t come from market forces they come from the heart, and they are the values nurtured in families and in schools, in our shared institutions and our neighbourhoods.


The notion that values spring "from the heart" is so vague as to be almost meaningless. Nor can they be reduced to "rules" - though so much of the New Labour agenda has assumed that that they can. Later, in what I imagine is a nod in the direction of his audience, he asserted that the values he's so keen on have their origin in religion:

Christians do not say that people shoufd be reduced merely to what they can produce or what they can buy - that we should let the weak go under and only the strong survive. No, we say do to others what you would have them do unto you.

And when Judaism says love your neighbour as yourself. When Muslims say no one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. When Buddhists say hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. When Sikhs say treat others as you would be treated yourself. When Hindus say the sum of duty is do not unto others which would cause pain if done to you, they each and all reflect a sense that we all share the pain of others, and a sense that we believe in something bigger than ourselves - that we cannot be truly content while others face despair, cannot be completely at ease while others live in fear, cannot be satisfied while others are in sorrow. We all feel, regardless of the source of our philosophy, the same deep moral sense that each of us is our brother and sisters’ keeper.

What he's talking about, the "golden rule", has however little or nothing to do with "the heart", and is not the product of any particular religious insight - though the founders and theorists of religion have usually co-opted it. It is, rather, the fundamental building block of, yes, markets. It is about mutuality and exchange, honest dealing, the foundation of the relationship of trust that makes the market system possible. In a genuinely free market, your choice of trading partner will be based on a number of factors, including reputation, efficiency, quality of service or product and, of course, price (which is, at base, a guarantee that the other party is not trying to profiteer at your expense). A genuinely free market will reward effort and punish shoddiness and sharp practice. A genuinely free market does not need morality to be imposed upon it; it is rather the source of morality.

Brown has things quite the wrong way around. Rather than morality (or "values") being extraneous to the market, something which must be imposed to make the market function in an acceptable manner, it springs from the human experience of relating one to another, of which trade is merely a formalisation. Biologists have traced the golden rule to the phenomenon of reciprocal altruism, of which (appropriately, no doubt) vampire bats are the classic illustration. It is in the interest of bats to share the fruits of their bloodsucking with other, less advantaged bats, because the night may come when they themselves will have to rely on the generosity of a fellow bat. From such humble beginnings derive our ethics, our markets, and all the most valuable insights of religion.

But what is a "value" anyway? It is a measure of what something is worth. And a "worthy" person is morally an upright one. It can't be a coincidence that so high a proportion of our ethical - and even religious - vocabulary consists of metaphors derived from the market, as do many terms of approbation. "She has a heart of gold", we say. "He's a diamond". So-and-so has "stirling qualities". If someone does you a favour you are in their debt, you owe them. And there's no such thing as a free lunch. Sooner or later will come payback time. You will be held to account for your actions.

As for religion, the Old Testament reports that the king of Babylon was "weighed in the balance and found wanting", and tells us that the price of a virtuous woman is "far above rubies". In the "parable of the talents" (a talent being a large quantity of silver) Jesus speaks of spiritual capital as a sum of money with which you should speculate to accumulate. Respect, in life, has to be earned. Conversely, we believe that criminals should "pay" for their crimes, that betrayal is a sell-out and that politicians who lecture the rest of us while enjoying the privileges of office are morally bankrupt.
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Monday, 30 March 2009

Shameless

Remember Derek Conway? He got into a spot of trouble early last year for paying his sons as "researchers" while they were actually studying at university. Nothing was ever "proved", but he was forced to repay the money and was thrown out of the parliamentary Conservative party. He lasted little more than a day following the revelation of his expenses scam. As I explained at the time, his fate was sealed when thousands of grassroots conservatives emailed Tory HQ, left comments at Conservative Home, blogged, rang in, expressed their anger. And David Cameron, to his credit, responded with speed. He realised how bad it looked. He knew how the perception of sleaze had soured the fag end of the Major years, how vital it was that the Conservative party should not merely be, but appear to be, "whiter than white". That lesson has long since been forgotten by the Labour party - though, thinking back to such early harbingers as the Bernie Ecclestone affair, various assorted Mandelson and Vaz arrangements, and the Blairs' flat-hunting exploits in Bristol, it might validly be wondered if it had ever really been learned.

The amounts claimed on behalf of the Conway boys, while far from negligible, were far less than the £150,304 Jacqui Smith has claimed for running and improving her family home - which a cosy flat-share arrangement with her sister enabled her to put down as a "second home", despite the fact that it was the only one she had. This may have been "within the rules" - but only because, as I mentioned in the context of another repulsive New Labour sleazeball, Tony McNulty, the rules were designed with honest people in mind, who might be trusted not to use taxpayers' money for their own corrupt enrichment. Most of the talk is of the porn watched - we are assured - by her husband (and taxpayer-funded employee) Richard Timney on his own. No surprises there. It may have represented a paltry £10 out of the total sum, less than a fiftieth of the £550 she claimed for a fancy sink, a hundredth of the cost of her fireplace. But we Brits like sniggering about anything sexual, and the thought of our puritanical, anti-porn, home secretary signing off her husband's dirty movies on expenses is irresistible. If Smith is forced out of office, it will have been the porn wot won it.

There's some confusion about which porn films Mr Timney actually splashed our money on. The Telegraph thinks that one of them may have been "Raw Meat 3", which pay-per-wank channel Television X was showing on one of the days in question. That, however, turns out to be gay porn. Possible, I suppose: in her interview with his wife last week the Telegraph's Rosa Prince describes our Jac as "a very macho home secretary". (As to the obvious question: why didn't he get his porn free on the internet like everyone else, there's an obvious answer: he probably did - we were also paying for the couple's broadband account, remember.) Then there were the other films: two showings of Oceans Thirteen at £3.50 a throw. Truly bizarre. Ocean's Thirteen is so dire it makes the disappointing Ocean's Twelve look like The Italian Job. Watching it once may be regarded as a misfortune; watching it twice looks like desperation.

"Jacqui Smith is now suffering from the triple whammy - sympathy, ridicule and outrage - which every politician fears", writes Nick Robinson. Ridicule and outrage, certainly, but I doubt many people have any sympathy for her. But of course he's not referring to the voters who pay her expenses claims:

To many MPs, she's a likeable working mum who didn't expect to be elected in '97; whose husband agreed to sacrifice his career to make hers possible; who works such long hours that she spends more days away from her family than with it and who knows that she's on course to lose her very marginal seat and thus, her job, income and allowances, at the next election.

As Oscar said of Little Nell's death scene, one would need a heart of stone.



It's the small details that are really telling. Leave aside, for a moment, the porn. Here's someone so keen to screw every available penny out of the taxpayer that she even claimed 88 pence for a bathplug. Someone who apparently believes that the £142 thousand salary she gets from the public purse to do her job of (as she likes to put it) "keeping the country safe from terrorism" won't stretch an extra £15 to have a cooker plugged in.

Totally shameless. But then shamelessness is one of the prerequisites for a modern politician. It is the flip side of having a thick skin which they need to survive the rough and tumble of debate, the backstabbing by and of colleagues, the inevitable close scrutiny of every move and every word. A politician must be able to filter out the "noise" and focus on the job in hand. But in developing such a carapace they are is bound to lose sensitivity. Think of Jacqui Smith, if you like, living inside a giant extra-extra heavy duty condom. It certainly protects her from infection - but she can scarcely feel a thing.

There's a connection, surely, between her notorious "toughness" as Home Secretary, the imperviousness to reasoned argument that she seems to regard as a virtue, and the shamelessness that enables her to grit her teeth and persevere in her job even while she has become the butt of a national joke. Nay, international. In the Telegraph interview, Jackboots showed her impatience with people who cared about her relentless erosion of basic civil liberties:

I get exasperated about people who are in reasonably comfortable positions in terms of their personal safety, who probably aren't completely clear about the threats, and who take an approach to rights which puts the right of privacy above a pretty fundamental right for us to be safe.


She revealed a similar impatience with those ill-motivated people who had the temerity to question her expenses claims:

What's hard is people feeling able to make comments that are wrong about the way in which you live your life. I believe I have stuck by the spirit and the letter of the law and the rules.

I have had to talk because of this about the decision that I've made as a working mum and Home Secretary which basically involved me saying I've got to separate my main home from the home where my kids live. People have found that difficult to understand. People have thought that the unusual living arrangements must mean there's something dodgy.


It's not the living arrangements that are dodgy, Jacqui, it's the fact you expect taxpayers to fund them.

Prince began her remarkably sympathetic interview by claiming that there had been a "neat symmetry" about Smith's week, featuring as it did both the launch of the Contest 2 counterterrorism strategy and the embarrassing questions raised by the case of Binyam Mohamed, who claimed to have been tortured with the acquiescence of British agents. There's certainly a neat symmetry about her response to both the political and the personal controversies in which she finds herself enmeshed. First:

While she can't go into Mr Mohamed's case, Miss Smith is said to remain "confident" that the British security services have not been involved in torture during the War on Terror.


And a few paragraphs later:

While she cannot go into details because of an ongoing investigation by the Parliamentary watchdog...She is clear that she will be fully exonerated.


She should heed the words of her equally adorable colleague Harriet Harman, who thought Fred Goodwin's pension would be judged by the "court of public opinion". As Hattie so appositely said, "It is not acceptable, and so it will not be accepted."

It is, of course, richly ironic that a minister who has done so much to impose surveillance on the rest of the population should find her own private affairs exposed in such embarrassing detail, and that a politician who has introduced and is planning to introduce legislation cracking down on various manifestations of commercial sex should be brought down by her husband's desire to watch cable porn. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, eh Jacqui? But irony - at root, a conflict between appearance and reality - is what always gets them in the end. The "prudent" chancellor who bankrupts the economy as prime minister, the anti-prostitution governor caught spending thousands of dollars on hookers, the war-loving premier who now wants us all to do God.

Politicians, as a rule, don't do irony. But irony does them.
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Sunday, 29 March 2009

Ferrying away our freedom

There comes a point, in any continuous sequence or process where change is measured out in increments, when one thing turns into another. A hill becomes a mountain, an accumulation of grains becomes a heap, a number of dates a relationship. A child of seventeen years and 364 days is supposed to metamorphose into an adult. Such cut-off points must be arbitrary, yet they must nevertheless be determined and declared or else we'd end up living in one of Zeno's paradoxes.

When does a free country become an unfree one? When the change is proceeding as steadily and stealthily as it is in modern Britain it would seem misleading to point to one event or another as decisive. Hence the appeal to gradualist metaphors. Henry Porter talks of the "salami slicing" of liberty, for example, while Shami Chakrabarti invokes the well-worn analogy of a live frog simmering in a pot. Once the frog realises what is happening it has missed the chance to escape; even when most of the salami has been sliced away it still looks and tastes like a sausage.

The only hope of salvaging the situation, then, must be to choose some arbitrary but not insignificant event to mark the point of transition: some law or policy that would recently have seemed inconceivable in a free society, but might be expected to feature in a police state. Internal passports, perhaps. A government that restricts the ability of its citizens to travel within the borders of their own county is surely far advanced down the road to totalitarianism, of however benign a variety.

The Mail on Sunday reports that the government plans - for reasons of combating terrorism, supposedly - to require anyone travelling on a ferry to or from destinations such as the Isle of Wight to show photographic ID before being allowed to board:

Buried on Page 113 of the 174-page ‘CONTEST’ document was the announcement of ‘new police powers to collect advanced passenger data on some domestic air and sea journeys’.

Last night a Home Office spokesman confirmed the measures would ‘require passengers to show photo ID, such as a driving licence or the (proposed) Government ID cards, when booking tickets for domestic air and sea journeys’.

He added that ‘ferry journeys to the Isle of Wight or the Isle of Skye’ and ‘private jet passengers’ would be included in the new measures, due to be formally announced later this year.


Here's one of the ferries. Not exactly the QE2, is it?



The powers will be introduced using a so-called ‘statutory instrument’ signed off by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, without the need for a full debate in the House of Commons.

A 2006 Home Office report said: ‘This data will provide the police with invaluable intelligence, enabling them to track the movements of suspected criminal and terrorist passengers.’


However have they managed up till now?

The power to introduce the measure has existed since 2006, but until now the government has not dared to introduce it. Allegedly, this is because MPs from Northern Ireland objected that the introduction of an "internal passport" would reduce the province's claim to be an integral part of the UK. With Irish terrorism back in the news, it is perhaps arguable that some such scheme might help in the fight againt terrorism from that quarter - although it was never felt necessary at the height of the troubles. No such argument can conceivably apply to the Isle of Wight ferry. The island is not, so far as anyone has been able to establish, a hotbed of Al Qaeda activity. If the purpose were indeed to curb (or at least monitor) the movement of potential terrorists, it would make more sense to monitor travellers between Luton and King's Cross, or between Bradford and Manchester.

I imagine that's the plan. The idea is to normalise the concept of photo ID, compulsory advance booking and data-collection on public transport. If the Isle of Wight scheme is accepted, it will be mainland train services next, followed by coaches. And when people object to yet more surveillance and delay, they will be told how successful the scheme has already proved to be on ferries. After all, no-one has blown up the Solent ferry since the requirement was introduced; so it must be working. QED.

Quite how inhabitants of the Isle of Wight without a passport or a photographic driving licence are supposed to cope with being made internal exiles in their own country - a curtailment of their liberty that must be contrary to their most basic human rights - is not explained, and does not seem to have been considered. And how the economy of the island is supposed to function when a large part of its income - from spur-of-the-moment day-trippers - suddenly disappears also doesn't seem to register with the surveillance fanatics of the Home Office. This is dreadful. It is beyond dreadful, it is obscene.

There must come a point when the government goes too far, where a stand must be made to prevent the slide into despotism becomes irrevocable. This has to be it.

Perhaps the appearance of this story in the Mail represents a kite-flying exercise; if there isn't a huge outpouring of anger it will proceed, a first stage in the elimination of spontaneous, anonymous use of public transport throughout the country, and a staging post towards the universality of ID cards, whether or not they remain technically non-compulsory. A few years ago such a proposal would have seemed outrageous, comical even, a thought-experiment about life in a totalitarian techno-state. Now it scarcely merits a shrug. Perhaps to people who have no desire to visit the Isle of Wight it seems not to matter. It does matter, it matters a great deal.

It is almost as if the government is introducing this measure so as to confirm the suspicions of the Isle of Wight's most famous resident, David Icke. I tend to avoid conspiratorial thinking. I do not for a moment imagine that the world is secretly controlled by alien lizards, or by freemasons, or by the Bilderburg Group. And yet the predictions of conspiracy theorists have a habit of coming true with alarming precision. There's little doubt in my mind that anyone who suggested ten or even five years ago that day-trippers to the Isle of Wight should have to produce passports to board a ferry, or that the state would require 53 separate pieces of personal information from anyone taking a day-trip on Eurostar would have have been treated as a staring-eyed loon. But the staring-eyed loons - including Mr Icke himself - were predicting such things. Coming up soon, they now predict, subcutaneous microchipping of the entire population. It sounds mad, I know. But so does needing a passport to visit the Isle of Wight.
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Saturday, 28 March 2009

Messing with the monarchy

The attempt by Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris to rewrite the rules of royal succession may not have got very far in Parliament yesterday, but they certainly made a splash outside. It's hardly surprising that Gordon Brown should relish this Ruritanian distraction from his handling of the economy, hence journalists were briefed that the prime minister had consulted the queen about changes to the 1701 Act of Settlement (which excludes Catholics) and to the principle of male primogeniture. It's an easy way to attract favourable coverage, after all. To most people the current rules are discriminatory, anachronistic and, as Harris primly put it in the Commons, "not acceptable in this day and age". But isn't the whole idea of having a monarchy discriminatory and anachronistic, whether the monarch is male or female, Catholic or Protestant, an intellectual or a buffoon? (Prince Charles, of course, believes himself to be the former.)

Tidying up old laws that almost everyone agrees are silly will create no more than the appearance of equity. I suspect that some of those nodding in agreement with Dr Harris would suddenly start shifting their feet if we had a prince of Wales (or a princess) who converted to Islam or Scientology, or who was openly gay. My main problem with the debate as it has unfolded over the past day or so, however, is its tone of preening 21st century self-congratulation. The monarchy is held wanting because it was not designed to specifications laid down by a New Labour quango. Yet, at least as regards women's rights, the monarchy might be described as the first progressive institution. For centuries it was ahead of the curve.

For hundreds of years, there were very few career options open to women beyond nun, prostitute, and witch. Women worked, of course, but mainly in the home or as servants of one kind or another. Not until the eighteenth century do we see a career in which it was possible for a woman to compete on more-or-less equal terms with the men: writing. In the following century came nursing, teaching and, eventually, medicine. But it was not until well into the twentieth century that women were able to enter politics or the law, and in the military they have had to wait until the 21st. It is unlikely in the extreme that there will ever be (another) female pope. Yet for all this time it has been open to women - a small handful of women, admittedly, and only when no suitable man was available - to be a queen.

This is no small thing. The United States of America, a country that has always seen itself as being at the cutting edge of modernity, still awaits its first female president. So does France, which like many countries never allowed women to ascend the throne. Yet pre-revolutionary China - archaic, stagnant, regressive - was for decades controlled by an empress. So was Russia for most of the 18th century, the period during which it joined the modern world. We too have had our queens, of course - one of whom, Elizabeth I, actually did something worthwhile. Its openness to women set the monarchy apart: other titles and estates were handed down exclusively down the male line, a tradition that caused such anguish to Jane Austen's Mr Bennett.

Although we have only recently achieved anything approaching sexual equality in society as a whole - a process still far from complete, of course - a monarchy which for centuries allowed some women to exercise supreme power is damned as sexist, reactionary and in need of reform. It is, of course, not logical that boys should have precedence over girls, younger sons over elder daughters. But then it is not logical that there should be a monarchy at all. It is certainly not logical that, given the potentially disastrous principle of hereditary succession, there should be no mechanism for distinguishing among the various children (or collateral descendants) of the reigning monarch which is most fitted to rule. It is hardly a great victory for equality if preference for the first born of whatever sex replaces preference for the oldest son. Even the Saudi despotism manages things better, with the throne passed sideways between brothers.

Of course, if Prince William's first born is a girl and the principle of male succession remained unchanged, it would in today's climate create a scandal. And unless the country has turned its back on sexual equality (not wholly impossible), and assuming that there still is a monarchy, it is unlikely that a younger son would be able to accede to the throne with popular support. But that is a bridge that can easily be jumped when or if it is reached. If it's a girl, changing the rule might be done on the nod and in a matter of days; if it's a boy, the need would not arise. Although I suppose the birth of royal mixed-sex twins might complicate matters. Given that it is for the moment a purely theoretical question, there seems little reason to draw attention to the anomaly now. Overturning a hypothetical discrimination against a person who does not exist and might never be born seems a strange priority when there are so many people who do exist and are discriminated against for real.

The monarchy is, at least in the context of the 21st century, an irrational institution. It shouldn't be expected to follow strict utilitarian principles when arranging for the succession. If it is unfair to privilege boys over girls, or to exclude Roman Catholics, then it just as unfair to prefer Prince William over Prince Harry, or either of them over me. A truly modern monarchy would decide the identity of the next king or queen through public vote, perhaps following an apprentice-style knockout competition. But then a truly modern monarchy wouldn't even exist. A monarchy is not about modernity but exists as a living reminder of our history as a nation. Its anomalies are like vestigial organs, showing evidence of evolution, disproving ideas of intelligent design. It is in itself an anomaly. That, arguably, is part of what it is for.

Which brings me to the other allegedly objectionable feature of the succession law, the exclusion of Roman Catholics.



The modernisers would have us believe that our history has been dominated by religious oppression, of which the Act of Settlement embodied. But it would be unfair to dismiss the anti-Catholicism of previous centuries merely as bigotry. It was also - primarily, in fact - opposition to absolutism and the divine right of kings. It was "progressive" (some Guardianistas still seem to think so, judging by what happens whenever Ratzinger opens his mouth). It was noticed, towards the end of the seventeenth century, that English kings who converted to Catholicism aspired to the condition of Louis XIV, whereas Protestant monarchs tended to be low-key and (for the times) democratic. In such circumstances excluding Catholics from the throne must have seemed merely a sensible precaution.

It worked. It worked so well that Britain was spared the constitutional upheavals that afflicted most of Europe and created the world's first modern industrial economy. The clause in the Act of Settlement excluding Catholics would not be passed today, of course; but it is not as a result of today's mindset that the House of Hanover, now renamed Windsor, sits on the throne at all. It may be that after two hundred years the dynasty has served its purpose, as the Tudors and Stuarts (who also lasted around 200 years) served their purpose and were displaced, as the Plantagenets before them came to a murky and bloodsoaked end. In which case, our historical traditions might best be maintained by changing the cast at Buckingham palace and choosing a new royal family more in tune with the modern age. Such a solution would surely catch the public imagination. It could even be Gordon Brown's legacy.
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Friday, 27 March 2009

Piddler on the Roof

This is a guest post by Frank Fisher

Amid all the discussion of the UK's latest Google Earth tourist attraction, the Hungerford mansion decorated with a giant penis, no one seems to have examined what kind of penis it is, and this could be important. It's possible that Rory McInnes might have to contend with more than a bollocking from his parents when he returns home from a gap year travelling. You see, it's not just a giant cock, visible from space along with the Great Wall of China. No, the great cock of Hungerford is quite individual in nature.

Rory has chosen to step outside the ISO international convention for cock-drawing, firstly by omitting the customary three drops of ejaculate, but secondly, and perhaps more seriously, by omitting the traditional sparse scattering of pubic hair upon the scrotum. We know that Rory is 18, we don't know who the cock is modelled on, but might it be a self portrait, and might it be the artist as a young man? True, smooth knackers could be the result of a back, sack and crack habit; they may also be an indication that this is an underage dick.

Under the Coroners and Justice Bill, currently crawling through parliament, paintings, drawings, and roofcocks may land you in jail. A sexual image will be deemed to be illegal child pornography if the illustration appears to be of a child, or appears to have child-like qualities in some way. Silky smooth bollocks may well qualify. As the Bill puts it

Where an image shows a person the image is to be treated as an image of a child if (a) the impression conveyed by the image is that the person shown is a child, or (b) the predominant impression conveyed is that the person shown is a child despite the fact that some of the physical characteristics shown are not those of a child. (7) References to an image of a person include references to an image of an imaginary person. (8) References to an image of a child include references to an image of an imaginary child.

There will be some who say we should ignore this offence, that no child has been harmed – this is not the point. An imaginary child may have been harmed. And of course an offender may have imagined he was harming that imaginary child. They must be punished for their imagined crimes. What kind of country would we have if people could run around thinking whatever they like? Won't someone think of the imaginary children?

It's an open and shut case. The evidence we have shows a hairless penis. The artist is barely of age, and remember that the Labour government has redefined a child, for the purposes of child pornography, to be anyone under, or appearing to be under, 18,. This will be a serious crime – a sentence of three years inside is possible. And naturally entry onto the Sex Offenders register is mandatory. Rory, typically for a sex offender of this type, is on the run abroad, but his family is right here,and the offence is one of simple possession. Luckily for Rory's family, and the despicable child porn distributors at Google Earth, this necessary and sensible law is not yet on the books – but it soon will be. Someone needs to get on that roof with a bottle of turps, asap. Alternatively Rory's dad could get hold of a can of battleship grey paint – Hammerite universal primer would be ideal – and add a healthy sprinkling of unambiguously middle-aged pubes. This eminently sensible law demands it.

Frank, a "forty-something contrarian and miseryguts" a.k.a. Mr Pike Bishop, has written many fine articles for Comment is Free. He now hopes to resurrect his own blog.
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Daud Abdullah, the Guardian and Me

Dr Daud Abdullah is the deputy head of the Muslim Council of Britain. Recently, he attended a meeting in Turkey in support of Hamas. It's unlikely he, or his fellow MCB leaders, thought anything strange about this: despite its claim to represent British Muslims in all their diversity, the organisation has, since its inception, been dominated by Islamists. Many of its founder members came to political awareness during the campaign against The Satanic Verses (described on an official MCB document as "profane and abusive"); its general secretary form many years, Iqbal Sacranie, notoriously claimed that death would be "too easy" a fate for Salman Rushdie. The MCB describes itself as an "umbrella organisation" with hundreds of constituent members - among these several of the most prominent and active (such as the Muslim Association of Britain) have longstanding links with Middle Eastern groups including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. An obsession with Middle East politics, to the detriment of issues of more direct relevance to the everyday lives of British Muslims, has long been a feature of the MCB's public discourse.

So it's unlikely that Dr Abdullah thought that his trip would cause him or the MCB any problems, even when he put his name to a statement of Islamist principles that has come to be called the Istanbul Declaration. It has, however, severely annoyed the government - or at least parts of the government - since it calls upon Muslims everywhere to resist international forces (including, potentially, British forces) that might be considered to be operating against the interests of Hamas. In fact the document, signed by Dr Abdullah apparently without reservation, contains considerably more than that. In line with the Hamas Charter, it withholds from Israel even the recognition of its name, preferring to call it the "Jewish Zionist occupying entity". By repeated references to Jews and Zionists, and none whatever to Israel, it implicitly inculpates and threatens all Jews as enemies of "the Islamic Nation". It declares that the Palestinian authority is illegitimate, and that all Arab governments are traitors to Islam. It invokes the blessings of Allah upon global Jihad, which it declares to be a religious duty. And it looks forward to the day when the whole of Palestine is in Muslim hands.

Hazel Blears suspended government links with the MCB until Dr Abdullah saw fit to resign. He apparently has no intention of doing so. In a statement, the MCB declares itself "appalled by the high handed and condescending action" of Blears' Communities Department. In this, it has had the wholehearted support of a Guardian editorial, which accused Blears of "grandstanding", and several of the paper's columnists. One, Seumas Milne, spoke warmly of Islamism as "a political trend as broad as socialism or liberalism". (Why not include fascism? There were, after all, considerable differences of emphasis between Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.)

The new government emphasis - outlined in its new counter-terrorism strategy Contest 2 - on countering "extremist" ideology, even of a non-violent kind was bound to have an impact on the MCB. For years, it has been the state's favoured interlocutor on all matters Islamic, despite its being less a representative body than a pressure group with a politico-religious programme all its own. Indeed, its role as the public face of Islam in Britain was largely bestowed upon it by a government which, true to the old colonialist principle of divide et impera, wanted to deal with Muslims as a block via "community representatives". Rather than as equal citizens. By doing so they empowered the religiously conservative and the politically radical. Now that the government suddenly seems less friendly, the MCB leadership feels seriously aggrieved, as though government validation was something that belonged to them by right.

Of course it's up to the MCB who it elects as its leaders. But it's also up to the government which groups they wish to include in official consultations, which leaders they wish to accord significance, who they wish to fund. If the MCB is nothing without government patronage, that is not the fault of the government - though it does say something about how "representative" it is of wider Muslim opinion. Personally, I'd rather the government didn't fund or bestow influence upon sectarian religious bodies at all. By privileging the Muslim "identity" above the other identities people of Muslim religion may have, the government necessarily empowers religious leaders, and religion generally, in areas of social or foreign policy where religion either has no relevance or (as in the Middle East) serves mainly to make a bad situation worse.

The Guardian's website yesterday featured a statement from Dr Abdullah in which he lambasted Ms Blears' "misguided and ill-advised" intervention and denied "calling for or supporting attacks on British troops anywhere in the world". He did not, however, resile from anything in the document - which is available in a PDF format. He gave the impression that apart from the paragraph the government took exception to, which he claimed was misinterpreted, there was nothing controversial in the declaration at all. No doubt that is his view.

For the benefit of readers who couldn't be bothered looking up a PDF file, I put up the entire text of the Istanbul Declaration over two posts. I neither added to nor omitted anything in the statement, though I did highlight the number of times words such as "Jewish" and "Jihad" occurred in it. The use of "jihad" was, I thought, particularly revealing since it was clearly being used in a military sense rather than that of "spiritual struggle" which we are often assured is its true meaning. But I didn't make the point - I just posted the text.

The CIF moderators saw fit to delete both those posts.

Does this mean that, by the standards applicable at the Guardian, the Istanbul Declaration amounts to hate speech? It certainly amounts to hate speech by my definition - but since the Guardian has seen fit to give Dr Abdullah a platform, that would indicate some inconsistency.

Or does it mean that the powers that be would rather people didn't know precisely what it was Dr Abdullah signed up to, and which he has in no way dissociated himself from?

Either way, it's quite remarkable. And I said so. And the post in which I mentioned the removal of the my earlier posts was also deleted. In fact, it was "disappeared"; in true Stalinist fashion, even the record of its deletion has been removed.

If you haven't read the Istanbul Declaration, I've posted it in the Dungeon, with some passages highlighted. It's certainly an eye-opener.
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Thursday, 26 March 2009

Hannan goes global

Daniel Hannan is "slightly perplexed" at the viral success of his dressing down of Gordon Brown at the European Parliament, which has now had getting on for 700,000 views on YouTube. It's on course for being the biggest surprise YouTube hit since Tricia Walsh Smith took to cyberspace to highlight her husband's sexual inadequacy.

I have been making similar speeches every week and posting them on YouTube for the past seven months. I made one just now: 60 seconds on how Brussels is spraying money at the European Investment Bank. Perhaps people felt frustrated about the way Gordon Brown had carried on without once asking for their votes. Perhaps they would have loved to tell him what they thought of him, but lacked the opportunity.

That's certainly part of the story. It's hardly surprising that usually only people with a passionate interest in the inner workings of the EU - a minority taste, it has to be said - take the trouble to watch all his clips. Depressing, but true - a truth that the Europhile tendency in the BBC and elsewhere imagines to be indicative of popular assent to (or at least acquiescence in) the continuing process of integration.

But this intervention wasn't, for once, about the wastefulness of the Brussels bureaucrats. It was about Gordon Brown. It was about the manifest disconnection between his frantic gallivanting about the world, telling other countries what they should be doing, even hinting at some form of world government, and the mess he has created.

On the very day that he is lecturing European politicians about their own greatness (and his success) the bank of England governor is telling MPs that the UK couldn't afford the lavish fiscal stimulus that other countries are planning, or have implemented. On the very day he is preaching to New York bankers about their greed and irresponsibility, the Treasury fails to sell the bonds which are supposed to fill the great black hole in the public finances. On the very day that he is hopping around South America asking poorer countries to shoulder some of the burden there's serious talk of Britain losing its credit rating. Which would make Gordon Brown the sub-Prime Minister of an officially subprime country.

So it's not surprising that a huge number of people will have been nodding in agreement with, if not standing and cheering, Mr Hannan's words. His intervention is, apart from anything else, brilliantly succinct, deadly, instantly quotable, a three minute hand-grenade described as a speech.

From "British jobs to British workers" to Britain's being in the "worst condition of any G20 country", he laid into the prime minister who had just finished proclaiming his undying love for all things Brussels. "You have run out of our money", Hannan complained. Comparing the world's major economies to a flotilla of ships, he noted that while other countries had used the good years to "caulk their hulls and clear their rigging", Britain was sailing into the squall in a dilapidated condition.

The last parliamentary attack to go down anything like so well Youtube was William Hague's witty riff on the possibility of Tony Blair being reincarnated as president of Europe. "Picture the face of our poor prime minister as the name of Tony Blair is placed in nomination... the awful moment when the motorcade of the president of Europe sweeps into Downing Street... the melodrama 'when will you hand over to me?' all over again." Hannan has easily surpassed that achievement, though, garnering acclaim from Americans who may still have only the vaguest notion as to Mr Brown's identity.

It is not true that such attacks on Brown's credibility can't be found in the mainstream media. Jeff Randall's repeated and apposite barbs, in the Telegraph and on Sky News, have become required reading and viewing. I particularly relished his comparison the other week of Brown and Bernie Madoff:

What's the difference between Bernard Madoff and Gordon Brown? Answer: one has drained fortunes from gullible victims, plundering their income and savings to create an illusion of prosperity. The other is going to jail....

Nobody knows for sure how much has gone missing, but Wall Street scribes are calling it a $65 billion fraud. Not bad for peddling fresh air. It is, however, a nickel-and-dime swindle when set alongside the 12-year con trick perpetrated by Mr Brown on British taxpayers. That, too, has been a form of Ponzi, but with many more zeroes and little chance of the mastermind ending his days in what Americans call Crowbar Hotel.


The difference in Hannan's case, as well as Hague's, is that on those occasions Brown was forced to listen. It is knowing that he is sitting there squirming, being confronted with the truth about his own punctured pretensions, his own failure, and being unable to do anything about it, that is so wonderful to hear.

But that's about it. Hannan would have said what he said, regardless of whether or not YouTube had been available to spread it abroad. And Gordon Brown would have been forced to listen. True, many people would have missed out on the delight of listening to his discomfiture, not least because the BBC decided it wasn't worthy of broadcast. So the real question is this: once we've enjoyed the cathartic experience of listening to Hannan's tirade, will anything have changed?

Daniel Hannan believes that his new-found Internet stardom demonstrates the changing nature of both news and politics:

The answer is that political reporters no longer get to decide what's news. The days when a minister gave briefings to a dozen lobby correspondents, and thereby dictated the next day's headlines, are over. Now, a thousand bloggers decide for themselves what is interesting.

Moreover:

Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

Up to a point. It would be ridiculous to deny that the Web now plays a large part in political communication. Nor that it has much greater potential for subverting the traditional order than any previous medium. Arguably Barack Obama owed his victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination race to his YouTube popularity, without which his campaign might never have caught fire. But a large number of "hits" doesn't necessarily, or even often, carry over into political influence. The question about Daniel Hannan, then, is whether he's the new Obama, or the new Joe the Plumber.

Hannan's platform is old-time fiscal conservatism. "You can't borrow your way out of debt"; even "you can't spend your way out of a recession", which is more debatable. Though that debate may become rather academic if the country's creditworthiness continues to deteriorate. There's always going to be a ready audience for that kind of language, on both sides of the Atlantic. That's why Hannan has pressed buttons beyond these shores: beyond the pleasure of watching Gordon Brown brought down to size there's also the satisfaction of seeing the whole political consensus discredited. Or at least wittily attacked. A satisfaction, that is, for those who don't share that consensus.

Yet it is possible to speak for a sizeable minority of the population and yet still be ignored. That was the fate of the Conservative Party for ten years following their 1997 collapse. It could well be that Hannan speaks for just such a disenfranchised constituency. The point is that of the thousands who watched and enjoyed his YouTube clip, the great majority will already agree with him. He will not have changed minds, or the terms of the debate.

In his blog today, the BBC's Mark Mardell explains to his many critics why he didn't think Hannan's speech worthy of a mention in his blog. The "Euroblog" "isn't some bulletin of record on everything that is said", he declares. Besides, he was waiting to go on air while Hannan was speaking. Translation: Hannan's perfect little rant simply wasn't newsworthy enough. Well, it's newsworthy now: but what's the story? The fact that Daniel Hannan laid into Brown? The substance of his criticisms, or the strength of his economic analysis? I suspect not. The story, if it breaks cover into the broadcast media in Britain (it has already featured big on Fox News) will be about the YouTube stats. A story, then, but not really a political story.

The question lurking in the background here is whether the current international consensus, such as it is (more spending, more regulation - but not necessarily in that order) is secure. If it is, then it will scarcely matter how many people watch Hannan torpedoing HMS Gordon. On the other hand, if Brown's policy and leadership continue to leak credibility at the present rate, if the G20 summit turns into an embarrassing fudge or the economy continues its slide, then Danel Hannan's pithy demolition job may come to look like a turning-point. But that would be an illusion.
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Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Gord European?

"Gordon has learned to talk European" claims Mark Mardell. He certainly has, if his superlative-drenched speech to the European Parliament yesterday is anything to go by. Just as he told the US congress that the United States is a uniquely great country - and earned a Blair-worthy eighteen standing ovations in the process - so now he tells the assembled ranks of Euro-federalists that their great bureaucratic regulation-producing machine as "among the finest of human achievements and... a beacon of hope for the whole world"; how without it there could be no peace or prosperity; how its mission now is to turn the world into a global EU. There was even a cunning dig at the Americans:

And so, starting at our debate today as we prepare for the London summit next week, I propose that we as Europe take a central role replacing what was called the old Washington consensus with a new consensus for our times.

Of course, the "Washington consensus" was an international agreement; just as the career-saving deal he hopes to secure at the G20 would be international. But the subtext is clear: it's now Europe that is, or should be, making the rules.

That's the sort of language they like in Brussels, the sort of language that feeds their complacency, that dignifies their inflated expenses claims. No wonder that the leader of the parliament's socialists described the speech as "brilliant" and "courageous". On the other hand, "Charlemagne" of the Economist notes that for all his fawning, Brown "received tepid applause from a half-empty chamber." (At least the authorities at Congress had the good manners to pack their half-empty chamber with interns and cleaners to create at least the appearance of interest). Charlemagne concludes that the those MEPs who bothered to turn up may have liked Gordon's message but "didn't believe him".

Brown always used to cultivate the image of a Eurosceptic, most notoriously turning up late for the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, so the photographs wouldn't show him smiling alongside the other leaders as democracy was kicked into the dirt. It wasn't just for show, though. His enthusiasm for the United States, however corny his speech to Congress, was deep and abiding - however un-American his corporatist, big state instincts. Keeping Britain out of the Euro was his greatest achievement as chancellor, perhaps his only achievement: however bad our economic woes are today, they would surely have been even worse if a decade of inappropriately low interest rates, set by the European Central Bank, had pumped even more air into the housing bubble. The right policy, no doubt - but one hardly calculated to win him friends in Brussels. Now, however, he needs them.

Here he is laying it on with the proverbial trowel:

So I stand here today proud to be British and proud to be European: representing a country that does not see itself as an island adrift from Europe but as a country at the centre of Europe, not in Europe’s slipstream but firmly in its mainstream.

And that is why I am proud that by a large majority our British Parliament ratified the Lisbon treaty.


The first sentence is purest tosh and, apart from anything else, bad geography. As for the second - well, it's nice to have a prime minister so proud about having betrayed his manifesto commitment to give the British people a referendum. I'd hate to think he was ashamed of his behaviour.

The real danger is where Brown's new-found love of Europe, born of his desperation to salvage something from the wreckage of his premiership, may lead. Several European governments, notably the Germans, want to see regulation of financial institutions - even of hedge-funds - transferred to a European level. Given that "regulation", or the lack thereof, is generally seen as having got us all into this mess, the wind is with them. And it may seem only sensible to go along with such moves; especially if you're Gordon Brown, and can portray yourself as "leading" the world in creating a new economic system.

Because this economic crisis began in the financial sector, and because that sector looms larger in the British economy than in many others, Britain is more badly affected than most. An easy, tempting conclusion is that Britain is therefore "too dependent" on financial services and therefore needs to "rebalance". But the good times will return, and financial services will once again be needed - and if they have decamped from the City of London it will be very difficult to get them back.

The Japanese are currently experiencing a collapse in exports, largely because the products they specialise in - high-tech, high-value, vanguard electronics - are (like banking) particularly badly hit by the global recession. But no-one would suggest that Japan gave up its electronics industry and went back to weaving silk. That, more or less, is what now threatens Britain. Over the past twenty years, the financial power of the City has grown beyond the reach of jealous Eurocrats. So important was it, indeed, that protecting the City was written into Gordon Brown's "five tests" (remember them?) for joining the euro. Now, however, he seems to be in almost indecent haste to offer up the jewel in Britain's economic crown to the gods of Brussels, the better to secure his legacy.

By surrendering the City to what is effectively foreign oversight he may be preserving his reputation as an international dealmaker, he may be showing himself a good European, he may gain the plaudits of the German chancellor (though he is unlikely to get anything substantial in return). But the price will be paid for generations.
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If you haven't yet seen MEP Daniel Hannan's brilliant demolition of Gordon Brown's pretensions, here it is.


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Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The NHS can't go on

This is a guest post by Julian Mann

Heresy Corner has emerged as a Cave of Adullam for various cultural outlaws including this Evangelical Christian. The Heresiarch's houseguests are diverse in their spiritual and moral perspectives. The heretical question developing in the mind of Cranmer’s Curate is this: for how much longer can the National Health Service operate without making moral judgements in the prioritisation of treatment?

There is still, thank the Lord, fantastic medical expertise and professionalism in the NHS and amazing cures are achieved for conditions that were absolutely fatal within living memory. That should be celebrated. But it is also clear that administratively the NHS is creaking under the enormous strain of the expectation placed upon it to act as the all-treating, all-embracing, non-discriminating, rainbow-shaped deity of post-Christian Britain.

Cranmer’s Curate recently heard an eye-witness account of the situation in a hospital where he frequently visits his parishioners. Some wards have had to be closed because of a break-out of infection and so an eclectic temporary ward has had to be set up which includes patients recovering from serious operations. It apparently bears an uncanny resemblance to an airport lounge in a banana republic and a dangerous one at that. Recently, the police had to be called in to restrain a drug-abusing patient armed with a knife that he had taken from the kitchen area and pepper-spray had to be used.

Like it or not, the NHS was originally the product of a society saturated with the Christian values of Victorian Britain, which was itself to a significant extent the spiritual and moral offspring of the Evangelical revival of the 18th century. The overwhelming majority of those the NHS began to treat free at point of need in the Britain of the late 1940s were ill because of no direct fault of their own. Many of those it initially treated had suffered injuries whilst serving their country in two world wars, including the gallant grandfather of Cranmer's Curate.

The NHS was not designed for the society that has emerged as a result of the social revolution of the 1960s with now high levels of drug abuse, obesity, and alcohol-fuelled violence as well as the overwhelming sense of entitlement to other forms of treatment for conditions that the stoics of old Britain were simply prepared to live with.

No mainstream politician dare ask the uncomfortable question about moral prioritisation. After all, ‘judgementalism’ is the ultimate sin in postmodern Britain. This sin may be avoidable in the celebrity fantasy world of the have-it-all, me-society but it is difficult to see how the exercise of moral discrimination can be avoided in the real world. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 23 March 2009

McNulty Must Go

Even by the abysmally low standards we have learned to expect from New Labour, Tony McNulty's conduct must strike any impartial observer as a disgrace. This potato-faced minister - ironically, part of his remit involves tackling benefit fraud - received at least £60,000 of taxpayers' money towards a "second home" which was neither his home(it's his parents') nor necessary for his work, since his Harrow constituency is located far closer to central London than are the houses of most commuters who have to manage without such allowances. Having been found out, this most thuggish of New Labour apparatchiks has behaved with brazen disregard for the sensibilities of the voters who put him in Parliament and who he is supposed to represent.

First, he said that he acted "within the rules"; then, that the rules might need changing (why? Because they put too much temptation in his way?); then, that he "felt uncomfortable" about taking the money (though not sufficiently uncomfortable to pay it back); finally, he declared that the best way of resolving the problem caused by his own arrogance, insensitivity and crookedness is to increase MPs' basic salaries. None of these excuses amounted to an apology. And an apology, even a repayment in full, would be in any case inadequate. He should go. If he does not resign Gordon Brown should sack him. The trouble is, I suppose, that if the PM got rid of every minister found to have exploited "the rules" to their own financial benefit there might not be many left. Which would be no bad thing, of course.

There will be an inquiry. But is any inquiry really required to demonstrate that this man is a disgrace to public office, to prove beyond doubt that he is nothing more than a squalid expenses fiddler, a cheap chancer, a hypocritical sleazeball? It may be that, technically, the rules permitted him to defraud the taxpayer in the way he did - and it will be said, as a result, that the fault lies in the rules. But the rules no more forced McNulty to claim money to which he was in no way morally entitled than light touch regulation forced piratical bankers to take unconscionable risks with their customers' money.

The rules were, naively perhaps, designed on the assumption that members of Parliament were honourable men and women. Only a crook would look on a second home allowance, designed to enable MPs to maintain a presence in their constituency as well as in the centre of London, as an opportunity to swipe £18,000 a year of taxpayers' money to pay for a home not their own that they neither lived in nor needed, and which in any event cost them nothing. Only a dishonest man would behave like that. Tony McNulty, you are a dishonest man.

BTW, where's the anger? I know many Conservatives are up to their necks in expenses fiddles of their own - but why isn't the press howling with outrage? Even the blogosphere seems curiously quiescent. People are shrugging their shoulders. They shouldn't. Compared with the money poured down the drains that are RBS and HBOS, compared with the sums squandered on databases and quangoes, McNulty's ill-gotten gains may not amount to much. But neither does Fred Goodwin's pension. Of course, McNulty isn't the first politician - not even the first minister - to be caught with his hand in the public till. But a rotting fish still stinks, even if it's hidden in a can of worms. And as rotting fish go, Tony McNulty ranks alongside Damien Hirst's shark. Read the rest of this article

Discrediting databases

The Rowntree report into the database state is well worth reading in its entirety (pdf) - if you like scaring yourself, or wanting to prove to yourself the old adage that "just because you're paronoid, it doesn't mean they're not after you". But I would like to draw attention these paragraphs, which I think get to the heart of the matter - why the database state is not merely inefficient, costly and wrong in principle but why it is deeply dangerous, not just to society, but to the very soul.

The 2005 Transformational Government IT strategy promised citizens choice and personalisation in their interactions with government. However, this was to be based on centralised databases and data sharing across traditional provider and departmental boundaries. At its heart lay not people, but great collections of data about people.

Meanwhile, two different faces of government were being joined up. One is the public services agenda, which formalises our social compassion. It speaks of customers and choice, cares for vulnerable children, provides health and education, keeps the streets clean and generally seeks to please. The other is the enforcing state, in constant conflict with those who break laws or ignore regulations. It seeks to exercise coercive control and speaks of enemies, targets, suspects and criminals.

The database state appears to fuse these two together. Increasingly users who should feel like a citizen or customer – responsible and in control – feel instead like a suspect or recidivist: fingerprinted, scanned, and their numberplates recorded as they travel around the country. But, as the police themselves freely admit, policing depends on continued public perceptions of legitimacy and fairness. Technologies such as DNA profiling, databases and even CCTV cannot be dissociated from ethical and social questions.

The database state can undermine people’s desire to participate in desirable and socially responsible activities, from seeking confidential advice for teenage health issues to showing cooperative goodwill towards law enforcement.


The emerging system - the product, as I've said before, of a dysfunctional, virtually autistic official mindset - is bad for democracy, bad for individuals, bad even for the officials who have to operate it, generally decent people "doing their job" who find themselves at the operating end of a giant surveillance machine. Its psychological impact has only just begun to be imagined, but a big clue may lie in the point about undermining people's desire to participate. Part of this comes from the fear that, for example, conversations with your doctor may not be completely confidential. Indeed, your doctor is no longer your doctor, an independent professional relating to you as a fellow human being, but has become an agent of the all-knowing state processing yet another citizen-statistic. (Are you on statins yet? I have to meet the target.)

But it's wider even than that. When the state behaves like an omniscient God, looking after you but expecting docile compliance in return, it saps the will. Relationships between individuals and between people and local institutions become mediated by the state, your very identity becomes something owned not by you but by the government, which the state graciously lends you in return for filling in a form and paying a fee.

The report warns that "the supertanker will not be turned quickly". Indeed not. Too much money has been spent already, too many careers have been built on the back of these databases, and the systems, furthermore, represent the collective wisdom of the administrative classes. But there has been a small victory, in the abandonment (for now) of the worst data-sharing proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill. That happened because of organised opposition - evidence that as knowledge has spread of what the government is up to, so has disquiet. This suggests to me that there is something unnatural and disturbing about the database state. Despite the rosy picture painted by ministers, people do not rush to embrace the all-knowing leviathon, they do not assume that the government is innately trustworthy or necessarily benign (unless they are Polly Toynbee or David Aaronovitch, of course), they do not naturally love Big Brother.

Google's launch of its StreetView program this weekend turned into a PR disaster as scores of complaints were received about the intrusiveness of many of its images. The Independent - hunting for pictures of politicians' front doors - discovered photographs of naked children playing on the public-access site. Is it too optimistic to see in the controversy the first signs of a society rediscovering the importance of privacy? Google may have misjudged the public mood - but it may also be suffering a backlash provoked by the government's own love of mass surveillance. Intriguingly, the Rowntree report's authors claim to have detected "a sense in the senior civil service and among politicians that the personal data issue is now career-threatening and toxic". An accident waiting to happen, in other words.

While New Labour remains in power relatively little will be done to dismantle the database state. But the combination of a new government, legal challenges and - perhaps most importantly - a ruinous national budget deficit may eventually turn back the tide. Otherwise there will one day be a huge scandal. Of course, Gordon Brown will be long gone by then.
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Sunday, 22 March 2009

Back on the warpath

Today the Observer carried an article "by" Gordon Brown - in reality, of course, penned by someone in the Downing Street press office, but it hardly matters, since a photo of our grinning Supreme Leader appears above it. It was about the threat from Al Qaeda - something that has not been quite at the top of the political agenda recently, what with the global economy nosediving and a country ruled by a reckless, spendthrift government staring national bankruptcy in the face. The only terrorists making the news for actually doing some terrorising have been Irish. The foreign secretary himself has written that the notion of a "war on terror" was a mistake, since "the more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common".

Now, though, we learn that "we are about to take the war against terror to a new level" - for such is the headline under which Gordon Brown's thoughts appear. As if on cue, a "suspicious package" is found at Gatwick Airport. On Tuesday there will be a publicity blitz concerning the government's strategy. As a taster, we're told that sixty thousand members of the public - shop workers and the like - have been on "terror prevention training". The BBC has the latest steer from the Home Office, that "the proposals would give the UK the most comprehensive counter-terror strategy in the world". Jacqui Smith pops up on a lunchtime politics show to stress that tackling terrorism "is no longer something you can do behind closed doors and in secret."

Indeed not. The danger there would be that the police and the security services would be so effective at disrupting the few terrorist plots that got beyond the fantasy stage, arresting the conspirators and putting them behind bars that people would begin to believe that the threat was, more or less, under control. This seems to be what is happening. "It is a measure of the challenge we face - but also our success in dealing with it - that in the last two years more than 80 terrorists who planned to kill British citizens have been convicted," writes Brown. And indeed it is a measure both of the size of the threat - minute - and the success that the security services have had - considerable - that there has been only a single successful Islamist terrorist attack in the past decade.

For a government that loves to justify each new restriction on civil liberties, from collecting details of all our travel arrangements in a vast (and vastly expensive) database to banning Geert Wilders (despite the unavoidable presence of the far more "dangerous" George Galloway), in the name of combatting terrorism, this record of success is potentially disastrous.

The "war on terror" Gordon Brown has in mind, though, is not so much a conflict as a state of mind. The attention is very much on the home front: it involves recruiting as many people as possible, people who might otherwise go about their lives without giving a second thought to terrorism, into the mentality of constant threat, inculcating a sense of common purpose in the face of an enemy that is elusive and is alarming precisely because of that elusiveness. This is where the new Citizen Army comes in. Sixty thousand people "trained and equipped to ...know what to watch for as people go about their daily business" are sixty thousand unpaid propagandists for the counter-terrorism industry. And the sixty thousand who have attended training courses are only the beginning. Everyone else is being reached by publicity campaigns: posters urging people to be on constant look-out for "suspicious" behaviour for example.

If there is such a thing as a Freudian grammatical slip, Brown's Observer article has one in its second sentence. After admitting that the only recent terrorist incidents of note have involved Irish irreconcilables, he says this:

We should be under no illusion that the biggest security threat to our country and other countries is the murderous agents of hate that work under the banner of al-Qaida.


Indeed, we should be under no such illusion. For illusion it most certainly is. There's a far greater danger of dying in a badly run hospital than in a terrorist attack. But exaggerating the danger to increase public fear is what this game is about. The rest of the article is full of this sort of Home Front language:

We must remain vigilant at all times...the strongest-ever counter-terrorist framework...risk that terrorists will abuse modern technology to mount chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks...the better we inform the public, the more vigilant the public will be...a global challenge...the threats we face are changing rapidly...the necessary changes, whether through greater investment, changes to our laws or reforms to the way we do things, to ensure that Britain is protected...the most fundamental human right of all - the right to life... terrorists will keep on trying to strike and that protecting Britain against this threat remains our most important job....


There are two irreducible facts about any campaign against terrorism in an advanced society: firstly, that the terrorists cannot "win", because their numbers are too small and the resources at their disposal negligible - at most, they can kill a few hundred; secondly, that it is impossible for the security forces to irradicate terrorist groups. Only the disappearance of the grievances, real or fantastical, that animate the minds of the terrorists can achieve that. And that is not something that can be achieved by propaganda campaigns or funding approved community groups. Either there must be real change in those aspects of foreign or domestic policy that annoy the terrorists and their sympathisers (as, arguably, happened in Northern Ireland - the "arguably", of course, referring to the "Real IRA"), or terrorism will have to be accepted as a price worth paying for the greater public good of continuing with the policies that the terrorists dislike.

There will always be a disagreement between those who believe that any price in loss of freedom or inconvenience to the general public is worth paying to eliminate even the slimmest possibility of a terrorist plot succeeding, and those who believe that the greater danger to our society comes from draconian measures taken to tackle terrorism themselves. The two positions are irreconcilable, but the balance between them will change with the perceived threat.

At at time when terrorism is uppermost in people's minds, there will be more support for the "safety before liberty" position; when there are other things occupying the public discourse, such as the economy, there will be more resentment of the inconvenience and the intrusion on ordinary life. For those committed to the security agenda - those whose careers depend on large slices of the public budget being devoted to counter-terrorism, at the expense of other things, including other "law and order" issues - it is thus incumbent to keep banging the drum.

This tactic has diminishing returns, though, as the shepherd boy in Aesop's story found out to his cost. Even many of the sixty thousand are likely to yawn their way through the anti-terror training, just as many yawn their way through diversity seminars or fire prevention classes. The comments that Brown's article has attracted on CIF have been almost universally hostile. Some of them were a little deranged, but then living in a madhouse is liable to send many otherwise normal people over the edge. The predominant emotions were anger, ridicule, above all disbelief. Reading them was like listening to a chorus of small boys shouting at the emperor: You've got no clothes, you've got no clothes. The war on terror has been rumbled. The game is almost up.
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Friday, 20 March 2009

Sarah Palin and the Scientologist

It has been a while since this blog brought you news of the redoubtable governor of Alaska. This hasn't been for want of material. Back in January came the launch of Sarah Palin's Political Action Committee, thought by many to be evidence of her grand ambition to topple Barack Obama in 2012. Then last month news broke of the collapse amid mutual recrimination of the engagement between Bristol Palin and the father of her child - an engagement that seems to have been invented to make the Republican faithful less sniffy about the whole unmarried teenage mom thing in the run-up to November's election.

Of course Palin has never been one to let a little family embarrassment get in the way of her mission, and it would seem that her campaign for the White House is already in full swing. Last week, the Draft Palin for President campaign held its first fundraiser, signing up a hundred local organisers. She has apparently been invited to be the keynote speaker at the annual Republican House-Senate fundraising dinner in June. The invaluable Alaskan politics blog Mudflats also reports that potential voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have been receiving unsolicited phone calls canvassing their opinions on a Palin bid.

One of the questions posed was whether voters thought it was important that Palin was re-elected in 2010, leading Mudflats to speculate

Is our governor wondering if a re-election bid is necessary, or whether she should just go for the book deal -> publicity tour -> big money -> start campaigning for 2012 in 2010 option?


As if that wasn't enough, she has invited herself to a parade in Auburn, NY, (also in June) celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Alaska's statehood. The event - commemorating the fact that William Seward, who helped ensure that Alaska became a full state in 1959, happened to live in Auburn, seems to have been created especially for her. At any rate, it's unlikely to be pure coincidence that a leading member of the organising committee happens to be the father of her spokeswoman Meg Stapleton.

Stapleton is one of the "protectors of the Palin brand" identified by Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, who notes that

There is no brand in Republican politics as powerful -- or as tenuous -- as that of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. She is simultaneously the hottest commodity on the Republican fundraising circuit and a figure of ridicule among Democrats (and even many Independents) who believe that her status as a national figure is entirely undeserved.


Another prominent supporter is John Coale, a well-known Washington lawyer and the husband of Fox News Channel's Greta Van Susteren. In an interview with Cillizza, Coale

described himself simply as a "friend" of the Alaska governor but acknowledged that he suggested she start a leadership PAC and helped her navigate through some of the questions surrounding her family that lingered after the campaign. Others familiar with Palin's political team insist that Coale has far more power than he is letting on -- essentially helping to run Sarah PAC.


Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Coale, as revealed by Gawker's John Cook, is that he is a long-standing and high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology. Cook notes that Coale has reached the exalted level of OT (Operating Thetan) VII. Which means that he will long ago have been initiated into the mysteries of Xenu, revealed to anyone above level III. Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis confirmed publicly the other day - after years of official denial - that according to their doctrines we are all contaminated by brainwashed alien soul remnants created millions of years ago by the alien warlord Xenu. The theologically literate will instantly recognise that scenario as a space-age spin on Gnosticism - but most others will assume that Scientology is absurd tosh. To be fair, all religions have doctrines that non-believers find hard to take seriously; it's one of the things that distinguishes a religion from a philosophy.

Greta Van Susteren is also a Scientologist. Says Cook:

Van Susteren's penetration of the Palin clan is total—she's been in Alaska practically every other week burnishing Palin's image in friendly profiles. The church's recruitment strategy has always been to snag high-profile converts like Tom Cruise and Will Smith, and it is well known for dispatching operatives on elaborate covert schemes to draw unsuspecting targets into the cocoon.


I wonder if, come the next presidential election, Tom Cruise will be bouncing up and down on Oprah Winfrey's sofa declaring his support for Sarah Palin. That wouldn't go down too well with Oprah. It will be interesting to see how Sarah Palin's most consistent support-base of Bible-believing Evangelicals react to news that she's taking advice from Scientologists. There always was something cultlike about the Palin phenomenon, so perhaps it's only fitting if it ends up being absorbed by the most preposterous cult of them all. If I'm still allowed to say that.
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Thursday, 19 March 2009

Speaking up for the Pope

The Catholic Church has a well known position on the use of condoms: it doesn't approve. You may think that's a crazy policy - I, as it happens, think it's a crazy policy - but it is hardly likely that the pope is going to change it off the top of his head while on a plane bound for Cameroon. So when a French journalist asked him about the policy - noting that it was "often considered unrealistic and ineffective" - it's unlikely that he expected anything other than a clear defence of the church's view. Which is, more or less, what he got. Benedict began by noting the good work done by religious orders before adding (my translation):

I would say that one cannot overcome the problem of AIDS merely with slogans [orig: money]. If there is not the spirit, if the Africans do not help themselves, you can't overcome the scourge by handing out condoms. On the contrary, [the risk is that] they make the problem worse. The solution requires a two-pronged attack. First, humanising sexuality, that is a human and spiritual renovation which brings with it a new way of relating to each other. Secondly, genuine friendship towards those in need, the desire - which entails sacrifice, personal renunciation - to be with the sufferers. Those are the factors that will help and which will bring visible progress.


I think some of those sentiments are quite profound. But, needless to say, the suggestion that condoms might make things worse caused quite a kerfuffle. Ratzo's media people clumsily attempted to defuse the latest papal "gaffe" by adding the words "the risk is" to the official website. Something that the Times quickly spotted, and which led Damian Thompson to renew his not-so-subtle campaign to be made head of communications at the Vatican by accusing the present incumbent, Fr Lombardi, of being "beyond stupid". What the revision actually shows is how in the wake of the Richard Williamson fiasco the Vatican is running scared of the global media.

And the media, for their part, scent blood. Hence a statement that was, even in its original form, more-or-less what anyone would have expected the pope to say is treated as yet another demonstration of Benedict's peculiar combination of reactionary views and tactlessness. So, for example, the "progressive" religious think tank (now there's an oxymoron to savour) Ekklesia huffed that the added caveat was "unlikely to satisfy critics who say his dogmatic stance against contraception is seriously damaging the fight against HIV-AIDS and endangering the lives of millions".

Peter Popham in the Independent suggests that the condom remark was merely "the latest in an endless succession of high-profile gaffes that have made the brainiest pope of modern times also by a wide margin the most accident-prone" and claims that his alleged gaffes "are becoming as frequent and predictable as Silvio Berlusconi's":

In previous pratfalls the Bavarian theologian has welcomed back into the Church a bishop who flatly denies the existence of the Nazi gas chambers, refused to sign UN declarations on the rights of homosexuals and the disabled, denied the possibility of inter-religious dialogue after praying in a mosque, insulted Muslims en masse, and failed to mention the Jews while visiting Auschwitz.


That last one sounds like quite a serious omission, I'll grant you. But "pratfalls"? It rather depends on what you suppose the pope is for. If you imagine that he is (or ought to be) a kindly spokesman for international niceness, a sort of UN goodwill ambassador in a white robe, or think (as Tony Blair appears to) that Catholicism is a sort of mushy coming-together of the opaquely well-intentioned, then maybe you'll wonder what Ratzinger's up to when he expresses politically incorrect opinions. Or you'll act "shocked, shocked" to discover that there's been some Catholicism going on in the Vatican. If only he could be like the Dalai Lama, you'll think, an aid junkie who giggles so benignly it's easy to forget that he was once the omnipotent god-king of a corrupt medieval theocracy. John Paul II, at least in the decade before he started drooling and falling over on stage, was such a natural showman that he managed to overcome - even to ignore - the criticism he inevitably drew from the bien pensants. Ratzinger, by contrast, a shy intellectual with a lisping German accent, yellowing skin and a taste for baroque costumes, is a gift to his opponents both inside and outside the church. And don't they just love to hate him.

Every time he says anything that might remotely be construed as controversial it's open season. Now even politicians see advantage in laying into him. That taboo was breached when Angela Merkel blasted him publicly during the Williamson affair. These latest remarks drew condemnation from the French and German governments, and the Dutch Development Minister Bert Koenders said it was "extremely harmful and very serious" that the Pope was "forbidding people from protecting themselves". Which is, needless to say, very far from what he was saying. But, hey, now everyone's at it, why not have a go at the Pope. It's not as though militant Catholics are going to gather outside the BBC shouting "death to the unbelievers", or set light to effigies of Polly Toynbee.

The Pope is a Catholic. Yes, I know, I couldn't quite believe it either - I'm still trying to process the information about bears and their excretory functions, but there you go. And it turns out that the church which Ratzinger currently leads (or tries to) has various opinions, not all of which may be in strict accordance with the editorial line generally taken by the Guardian. Amazing.
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Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Think of the Children

I've never been one for graphic novels - a grievous deficiency, I have no doubt, in my aesthetic appreciation. I'm told, however, that the work of Alan Moore is highly regarded, and is the source of several films, some of which I may even have seen. It's unlikely that his most notorious work, Lost Girls, will be translated to celluloid any time soon however, given that its conceit has three of literatures best known girl heroines telling all about their rampant underage sexual experiences - and the illustrations leave little room for doubt.

Despite such perverted doodlings, Moore himself is clearly not a danger to society. Nor would he fit into the category of "dirty old man" whom the Conservative MP Edward Garnier recently imagined might get his kicks from "creating grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise obscene images". He clearly has his eccentricities: according to the ever reliable Wikipedia he is "a vegetarian, an anarchist, a practicing magician and occultist, who worships a Roman snake-deity named Glycon, which he acknowledges to be a complete hoax. He also sports a beard that would not look out of place on in early Seventies rock band. But these things are not yet crimes. Lost Girls, however, might be.

Ever mindful of the need to protect children from the paedophile monsters who, the Sun assures them, are lurking in every shrubbery, the government is currently legislating against pornographic images of children. Section 49 of the alarmingly wide-ranging Coroners and Justice Bill goes into some detail about the kinds of images - which include computer-generated pictures and drawings, but not photographs or "tracings" posed by real, flesh and blood children - that are to be outlawed. A minister, Maria Eagle, claimed last week that only truly depraved images would be caught. "These images", she maintained, "are at the highest, most explicit and disgusting, unpleasant end of any spectrum ...They are highly detailed, explicit drawings, cartoons and computer-generated images that look real and depict horrific scenes of child sexual abuse".

Yet the law is so broadly drafted that almost anything might be caught by it. For a start, there's no requirement for pictures to be even vaguely realistic. Sexually explicit drawings of adults will be illegal if there's an imaginary child in the picture. "Child" is defined not as a prepubescent but as anyone under 18 - including an imaginary child. The bill adds, confusingly, that an image is caught if "the impression conveyed by the image is that the person shown is a child" even if "some of the physical characteristics shown are not those of a child". This produced perhaps the most surreal intervention from Ms Eagle:

It is important to cover circumstance in which a person may try to avoid prosecution by amending the image of a child slightly—for example, by adding antennae or animal ears, and then suggesting that the subsequent image is not a child. That is a real concern.

If nothing else, such remarks speak volumes about the strange thought-world inhabited by the framers of such laws.

In the couse last week's debate, Garnier and the Liberal Democrat Jenny Willott both put forward reasoned amendments aimed at tightening up the proposal so as to catch only pictures that might plausibly pose a real danger to children. Garnier wanted to make the focus on "publication" of an image so as not to criminalise the aformentioned dirty old man, while Willott was concerned by the vagueness of the terms "image" and "child". Both pointed out that crimes should not be created without any evidence of actual harm. In response, Eagle - aided and abetted by George Howarth - produced a series of justifications placed on speculation, emotional blackmail and moral disapproval. Here are a couple of her choicest remarks:

Just because we cannot prove real harm to specific children at this minute, we should not allow such loopholes—effectively, created by developments in technology—to continue to make a mockery of the law that is intended to protect our children.

Children see cartoon images regularly in day-to-day life. They are a well-accepted form of entertainment for children, and the characters are often well known. An offender could easily exploit that familiarity, using explicit images created in such formats, and such graphic cartoon images could be a powerful grooming tool.

As Jenny Willott pointed out, there's no clear evidence that seeing obscene drawings leads viewers to commit acts of actual abuse. There are, in fact, two possibilities:

One is that non-photographic images legitimise abusive behaviours in the minds of offenders, leading them to act out the images and display abusive behaviour—the images, therefore, pose a risk to children. The other view is that they are not photographic, so there is no victim as such, and they act as an outlet for individuals who have those tendencies and predilections—they act as a release, and therefore reduce the risk of abusive behaviour towards children. From what I can gather, it is actually very unclear where the balance lies between those two arguments.


But this legislation isn't so much about logic or preventing real harm as about "sending a message", of course. And a couple of the supportive interventions from government MPs make one wonder, not perhaps for the first time, about the intellectual quality of our legislators. Here was Madeleine Moon, for example:

If we are talking about images of children of a sexual nature, how does that square with people growing cannabis for their own use but not selling it, or engaging with consenting adult friends in sado-masochism but not inviting those who are not consenting adults to take part?


And George Howarth:

If the hon Gentleman doodles on the back of a piece of paper during the course of the Committee, screws it up and throws it away, but somebody retrieves it, and then it is discovered that it is grossly offensive, disgusting or of an otherwise obscene character - an image that could be of such a nature that it would be solely or principally used for the purpose of sexual arousal - what he had engaged in would be improper and should not be approved of or sanctioned by the law.


Ye gods.

Of course, the law isn't aimed at art. At least, I don't think so. But that doesn't mean that it won't impact on legitimate artworks. It has plausibly been suggested that even some of the creations of Aubrey Beardsley would fall foul of the legislation. Many in the industry are alarmed enough to have set up the Comic Alliance to campaign against them.

You don't have far to look to find innocent works of art that have nothing to do either with paedophilia or pornography yet have found themselves at the centre of police action. The law under which the Internet Watch Foundation decided it had to censor Wikipedia because of a naked child on a thirty-year old album cover was designed for sex offenders and the paedophilically inclined, so was the law which saw an Australian man convicted for possessing an obscene image of Bart Simpson. The law is a very blunt instrument - and whatever is in the minds of legislators a broadly drafted act is liable to be stretched and manipulated far beyond what any normal person would think reasonable. But when dealing with the technicalities of law enforcement normal conceptions of reasonableness often take second place to other factors such as arse-covering, conviction targets or the activities of persistent, highly-motivated campaigners.

This is an area of the law plagued with inconsistencies: most obviously, that a "child" for the purposes of child pornography legislation may be an adult for the purposes of the age of consent. Indeed, if one of the government's more cynical vote-grubbing ideas comes to fruition, they may even be voters. At the same time, the law makes no distinction between pre- and post-pubescent children, so that (technically at least) a physically mature seventeen-year old is bracketed with a child of eight or ten, whereas a more-or-less indistinguishable eighteen year-old is put in a wholly different category. This is, almost literally, insane.

Where the law is not merely an ass but braying at the moon, clearly there's something deeper going on. I have suggested before that it reflects - and displaces - the guilt and cultural confusion surrounding the sexualisation of society and in particular of children. Idealising and sentimentalising childhood seems to go hand in hand with restricting, fearing and criminalising actual children. The Mail had a report today about the growing phenomenon of "sexting" - teenagers sending each other explicit photographs of themselves. Technically, this makes them "producers" of "child pornography" - and in the United States a growing number of children and teenagers have been prosecuted under such legislation. When the very people the law is supposed to be protecting are the ones being turned into criminals, something morally very strange is going on.

At the moment it is difficult for any politician (or journalist for that matter) to question the current consensus. As Edward Garnier said, "it becomes difficult in the court of public opinion—to use a phrase which the Government now seem so fond of—to discuss this rationally." But future generations, I have no doubt, will be astonished that so much legislative time, so many law-enforcement resources were devoted to prosecuting drawings of imaginary children. Especially when those same authorities allowed so much actual abuse - sexual and otherwise - of real children to go uninvestigated and unpunished.
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