Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Losing Identity?

So, has he or hasn't he? The snap assessment from most news outlets is that Alan Johnson has indeed signalled a major policy U-turn from the government's "flagship" ID card scheme. "The end of ID cards?" asks the Mail. "Climbdown on ID cards" says the BBC news website. But others aren't so sure. As the Guardian points out, while the most controversial part of the scheme's rollout - forcing workers in selected airports to register for the cards this autumn, Johnson "intends to accelerate other elements of the scheme, including plans to issue £30 voluntary ID cards to young adults across north-west England."

There are two ways in interpret Alan Johnson's announcement. Either it marks another stage in the slow retreat of the Home Office from their plans to introduce quasi-compulsory identity registration, or it is basically a PR move designed to make the cards seem less objectionable without sacrificing the central goal of having the population hooked up to the database as quickly as can be managed. At this stage, it's difficult to tell, partly because, government being government, they would attempt to disguise a U-turn even if they were embarking on one, and partly because the announcement was made in such vague terms.

The ID card scheme has always had two elements - the ID database, and the card. The card scarcely matters. It does no more than a passport does in identifying the person holding it. Given that the government still wants to introduce biometric information to passports, the process of building up the National Identity Register is scarcely affected by today's announcement.

The problem isn't not the card, it's the database. Will applying for or renewing a passport entail registering for life with the ID database, which you will be compelled to keep informed of your address and any change in circumstances, on pain of a £1000 fine, whether or not you choose to renew the passport? If so, says Liberty's Isabella Sankey, the scheme "will be compulsory in practice. However you spin it, big ears, four legs and a long trunk still make an elephant."

Indeed, the generally promising new Home Secretary was at pains to insist on his personal attachment to the scheme - which might be bluster, of course. The Home Office press release accompanying today's announcement is headed "Home Secretary affirms commitment to identity cards". The impression given - Soviet style - is that the rollout is all going according to plan - indeed, better than expected. No suggestion of any rowing-back or loss of enthusiasm. Quite the reverse, in fact.

"The rollout of identity cards will be accelerated under new proposals set out today by Home Secretary Alan Johnson," it begins, "highlighting the benefits of identity cards to those who need them most."

In addition to Greater Manchester - vaunted earlier this year as a "beacon area" for the scheme by the much missed Jacqui Smith - "residents in locations across the northwest will be entitled to apply from early next year". Lucky them. We're then told that there will be a big push to encourage young people to sign up, and a hint that retailers will be asked to insist on seeing them. There's also a bizarre plan to issue the cards free to over-75s. Also: "the appointment of an independent Identity Commissioner will be made shortly." Great. Another unnecessary and overpaid quangocrat.

The Home Office, it would seem, no longer expects the mass of the population to be queuing up for the ID cards. Instead, they will be heavily targeted at young people, who may not need passports (though most will) and who, unlike their elders, have grown up taking for granted constant demands for ID.

What do I conclude from all this? First, the opponents of ID cards would seem to have won the political argument. The prospect of airline pilots boycotting the scheme has put paid to the discriminatory, and legally questionable, idea that people working in aviation should be compelled to place their details on a national register that is not designed with aviation in mind. The scheme has, moreover, become vulnerable in these recessionary times to objections on grounds of cost. Given that the ID register is apparently still going ahead there are still substantial savings to be made from scrapping it; but without the headline-grabbing element of compulsion opposition might be more difficult to sustain. That, at any rate, is what its proponents hope.

There have always been two impulses driving the ID system: the political (based on headline-grabbing claims that the cards will magically solve the problems of terrorism, organised crime, benefit fraud, etc), and the bureaucratic. The bureaucratic drive for ID registration comes from the perennial desire of governments to organise and control the population, a tendency that has always been vulnerable to IT companies proferring technical (and, of course, pricey) solutions. If the political case for ID cards has failed (though they are not, yet, deeply unpopular) the bureaucratic case remains; and the companies that stand to rake in the cash will even now be taking steps to cling on to their contracts and hopes of contracts.

Word is that Alan Johnson personally wanted rid of the scheme entirely, but Gordon Brown wouldn't let him. That's how the Conservatives are spinning it, anyway - althougth Johnson himself claimed that he was the scheme's greatest supporter. Mind you, he's also declared himself to be Gordon Brown's greatest supporter on numerous occasions, and we all know how seriously to treat that assertion. Brown is certainly an enthusiast for the database state in all its guises, from the ID register to the even more dangerous plans for "transformative government". It suits his centralising, statistic-accumulating, micro-managing style. But it's more likely officials in the Home Office who stymied any plans Johnson may have had to kick the scheme into touch. They have waited for too long to get their misanthropic paws on all that data to let it slip away from them now. No doubt they have high hopes on working a similar trick on the incoming Tory government.

For them, it has never been about ID cards anyway. Henry Porter helpfully draws our attention to what he calls a "dubious little paper" called Safeguarding Identity (pdf) published by the Home Office only last week. This, says Porter, "describes how the ID card and the transformational government scheme mesh together in one glorious structure where data about the individual passes between departments. That is the prize and why they will use any argument and spend any amount to achieve it." And indeed, paragraph 3.9 shows that, whatever the substance or subtext of today's announcement, the ideal of national ID registration remains for the moment unchanged:

3.9. It is proposed that, over time, the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) will hold the minimum identity data set. This would make it possible for other Government departments to share this information...

And for that to come to pass, some form of compulsion will eventually be needed.

At present, "the state" doesn't know everything about you: different government departments each know different things that they need to know for different and particular purposes. I'd like it to stay that way. Of course, it makes things less efficient - but then efficiency is and always has been the enemy of freedom. Liberty lives in the gaps where the government can't quite see what's going on.

Although, needless to say, it isn't just about you and the state:

3.32. The vision for the NIS is that it will become an essential part of everyday life; underpinning interactions and transactions between individuals, public services and businesses and supporting people to protect their identity. The NIS will do this primarily through further ‘identity services’: the processes and tools with which people can prove or check identity.

3.34. The experience of other countries suggests that identity services need to be developed gradually, over time, with new functionality being added as the number of people enrolled grows and the appropriate technology develops further. It also shows that access to public sector services often comes first, but in the end it is both public and private sector applications that will drive utility.

Incidentally, there's nothing anywhere in the document that suggests that the plans might be affected by a change of government.

I note that the document contains a foreword by one Alan Johnson. "I fully endorse the actions set out in this strategy and look forward to supporting their delivery." Perhaps he doesn't really mean it.
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Review: A Useful Fiction

Adventures in British Democracy
by Patrick Hannan

(Seren Books, £9.99)

For a government often accused of shallowness, obsession with the media and a general lack of ambition or willingness to offend, New Labour has been extraordinarily transformative. Patrick Hannan is surely right to suggest that the past decade and a bit has seen a revolution in the governance of Britain unparallelled in centuries, with devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland raising profound questions about what "Britishness" is or ought to be (if anything). But, as he also notes, all this has happened without most people in England even noticing. Or if they do notice, they imagine that it has only minimal impact on their lives.

The "useful fiction" of the title is of course Britishness itself - though it may validly doubtful whether it is either useful or a fiction. It's certainly the case that politicians have only begun taliking seriously about Britishness as the British state has come close to breaking apart. Hannan is dismissive of the political cant that sees the basic British traits as being "tolerance and fair play", locating it instead in the nostalgia and fear peddled above all by the Daily Mail. In this he seems to fall into the very trap he warns about, of taking stereotype for reality. The quintessential Briton, in his view, turns out to be the Prince of Wales - an insight it's hard to disagree with, although in singling out the irrationalism of Charles' belief in alternative medicine he rather over-estimates the rationality to be found in most other countries. He also singles out the strange role Mohammed al Fayed has come to play in the popular imagination, at once "funny foreigner" and sinister interloper.

All this is good fun - but more serious questions arise, not least the status of England under the new dispensation. Few people seriously doubt that the Conservatives will win a majority of seats in England at the next election. In the event of a hung Parliament, though, Labour might attempt to cling on with Welsh and Scottish support - which would raise serious questions of legitimacy. On the other hand, if a Conservative government with few Scottish seats faced an SNP-led Scotland, the independence question would be brought to a head. Either way, it's hard to see the present set-up surviving.

Hannan points out that while the problem is usually construed in terms of England vs the Rest, in reality the biggest division is between the smug metropolitans of London and anyone whose misfortune it is to live outside the M25. As a long-time BBC man and expert on all things Welsh, Hannan is well placed to see the question from both sides of the fence. This book is more of a jaunt through the ironies of modern Britain rather than a coherent argument - which makes for an entertaining read ("a running commentary") if a slightly inconclusive one. He's a sharp observer and has some good stories to tell. On page 91, for example, on Gordon Brown's apparent transition from dull but competent Chancellor to failing Prime Minister: "I was told by someone who knew the government intimately that, in fact, he had been useless all along but at the Treasury his more able advisers had seen to it that he didn't get into trouble". And I enjoyed Hannan's tale of an encounter with Peter Hain, out of office following his failure properly to record campaign donations, which "felt as though I'd somehow stepped into a bereavement".

Understandably (given his BBC background) Hannan is alarmed by recent media developments - which have, among other things, left Scottish and (particularly) Welsh politics scandalously under-reported just as local politicians have begun to exercise real power. He isn't impressed by blogs, either, claiming that most are merely "a running commentary on life rather than a serious attempt to gather fresh information and analyse it" and that "the best of them come from people who are already writing for the newspapers or working for the BBC". Hmm. Perhaps I should send him some suggestions.

Available on Amazon Read the rest of this article

Monday, 29 June 2009

Atheist young pioneers?

To my mind, one of the most annoying clichés of our times is the claim that atheism has become a kind of ersatz religion, with secular "priests" - Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling - and doctrines as rigid as that of any religion. It usually goes along with the dismissal of leading non-believers as "fundamentalists" - which, apart from anything else, takes no account of the possibility that, for example, believers in natural selection might have perfectly good reasons - based on nothing more than the weight of scientific evidence - for believing what they believe. No, the mere strength of their conviction is enough to see them lumped in with the most bovine Creationist. And now, it seems, these blinkered rationalists are - gasp - coming for the kids. According to an editorial in yesterday's Sunday Times:

Richard Dawkins, champion of atheism and scourge of all things religious, has come up with a novel idea to wean our children away from God: summer camps for would-be little non-believers.

Untrue on all points. The summer camps being referred to are not Dawkins' idea; they are not novel - they have been running in the USA for more than a decade; they are not intended to "wean our children away from God" - a somewhat alarmist formulation - but to encourage them to think for themselves; and they are not "for would-be little non-believers".

In fact, all that has happened is that the author of The God Delusion has given his support and encouragement to the introduction from America of Camp Quest, in which children and teenagers are introduced to basic philosophical concepts as well as taking part in more traditional holiday activities such as canoeing. As Trina Hoakes puts it, "the purpose of the camp is to offer an alternative to religious summer camps where children can learn how to think rather than what to think". Summer camps are of course an American institution. My only acquaintance with them is from Addams Family Values - but if that film's satire of the suffocating cheeriness of such events is anywhere near the truth then Camp Quest looks like a most appealing alternative. Samantha Stein, a psychology graduate who is running the first such camp in Somerset next month, thought that British children should have the opportunity to take part.

According to Lois Rogers' report:

The emphasis on critical thinking is epitomised by a test called the Invisible Unicorn Challenge. Children will be told by camp leaders that the area around their tents is inhabited by two unicorns. The activities of these creatures, of which there will be no physical evidence, will be regularly discussed by organisers, yet the children will be asked to prove that the unicorns do not exist. Anyone who manages to prove this will win a £10 note - which features an image of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory - signed by Dawkins, a former professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University.

(Someone should warn the professor that it is actually illegal to deface banknotes.)

One of the parents who has signed their children up for the course, Crispian Jago (an IT consultant, wouldn't you know), is quoted as saying: “I’m very keen on not indoctrinating them with religion or creeds. I would rather equip them with the tools to learn how to think, not what to think.”

It's hard to square such a clear statement with the Sunday Times' assertion that it is "a summer camp for atheists". So far as I can see, it isn't even a summer camp for the children of atheist parents, as Hemant Mehta describes it - though no doubt many of the parents sending their children to it will be rationalists of some sort. It isn't just atheists who should know how to think; nor is it only atheists who would like their children to think for themselves. Any child, of whatever background, would benefit from having some of the cobwebs cleared from their minds.

It hardly amounts to an atheist boot camp, even if, as the report states, "the youngsters’ mornings will be spent debunking supernatural phenomena such as the formation of crop circles and telepathy". I can't imagine devout Muslim or Christian parents having a problem with their children discovering - as if they didn't know already - that crop circles are actually made by people. Nevertheless, Rogers manages to make the camp sound like a comically sinister indoctrination facility. "Give Richard Dawkins a child for a week’s summer camp and he will try to give you an atheist for life" she writes - although, as I read it, Dawkins won't even be there. (Perhaps he'll drop by. I do hope so.) She also claims that "Instead of singing Kumbiya and other campfire favourites, they will sit around the embers belting out 'Imagine there’s no heaven . . . and no religion too'". I've no idea if that's true or whether she made it up - but I strongly suspect the latter.

Despite his minimal involvement in the project, this is now, in journalistic shorthand, Richard Dawkins' personal plan for turning out a generation of Mini-Me atheists. Which caricature, needless to say, has provoked much hostile comment. The Telegraph had a "spokesman for the Church of England" who - clearly relying on what he had been told by the reporter - opined that "in his imitation of the type of youth events that religious groups have been running for years, Dawkins makes atheism look even more like the thing he is rallying against." Yes indeed. He'll probably be swinging God-free incense around next.

And here's the soppy Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent, objecting to the treatment of children by their parents as objects or accessories:

Within many religions, brainwashing starts young, so there is never a chance of dissent in later life. Four and five-year-olds are put into hijab these days, so they will never know anything else or ever rebel. Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews have become more ardently committed to the idea that the new generations have to be tightly watched and processed by their parents...

I completely agree, of course. As does Professor Dawkins.

What is just as worrying is that those who consider themselves to be modern rationalists are just as dogmatic and now going after the young. I hear Richard Dawkins is setting up a holiday summer camp to introduce eight to 17-year-olds to his fanatically held faith – atheism. If it were for 17 to 21-year-olds it would be fine. This seems to me no different from the religious zealots who want to get into susceptible, immature minds, raw material to be moulded by adults.

This is just hilarious - or it would be, if it weren't such a travesty. Does Yasmin seriously believe that anyone under seventeen is too young to learn how to think? Presumably not: she just hasn't bothered to find out the facts before squeezing out her indignation in print. As it happens, there's a whole chapter of The God Delusion devoted to the danger of indoctrinating children. Famously, Dawkins objects to applying religious labels to children: "a child is not a Christian child or a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents". He also writes:

I thank my own parents for taking the view that children should not be taught so much what to think as how to think. If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, they grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure. And this, of course, is especially important when we reflect that children become the parents of the next generation, in a position to pass on whatever indoctrination may have moulded them.

What the articles in the Times - and Yasmin Alibhai Brown's response to them - reflect is two common assumptions in the reporting of atheism: the pre-eminence of Richard Dawkins, and the assimilation of atheism to a religious belief. Of course Dawkins is Britain's, perhaps the world's, most visible atheist. But the author of The God Delusion is not some sort of atheist pope, personally directing the opinions and behaviour of non-believers everywhere - even if he occasionally gives the impression that he'd rather like to be. The latter fallacy - for there is clearly no such thing as an atheist "faith", and even humanism is a set of attitudes rather than a doctrinal position - has even been incorporated into law, as atheists are now protected against "religious discrimination".

The so-called "new atheists" - a better term would be "media atheists", since there's nothing whatever new in what they say - do not present the world with a coherent belief system. They merely share an opinion about the probable non-existence of a Supreme Being and (a rather different position) a dislike of organised religion. Of course, many atheists also believe in things - human responsibility, for example, or the scientific method, or that knowledge is better than ignorance. But they do not believe in such positive virtues in the same way that, for example, most Christians believe in the truth of the Resurrection. They believe that they are good, worthwhile things, or human achievements worth celebrating. The dynamic is fundamentally different from that of religious belief.

Nor do they believe in such things as atheists. It's perfectly possible to combine atheism with scepticism about science, pessimism about the human condition or even enthusiasm for religion as a mythic structure or mechanism of social control. Atheism is non-belief in God, period.

I'm not sure why atheism has come to be assimilated so much to religion. It may have something to do with the journalistic (and bureaucratic) desire to put things in neat little boxes, with atheism lumped in with religion for no better reason that both atheists and religious leaders have something to say about God. It may be one more consequence of the pernicious modern phenomenon of identity politics - which has led, for example, to the British Humanist Association claiming its share of the "faith" money doled out by the government. It may just be laziness, though.

I'm pleased to discover, via the BBC, that "after receiving hundreds of inquiries" the organisers of the camp are planning to expand the scheme beyond the original - and quickly sold-out - 24 places. Excellent. But why should kids have all the fun? There's at least as much need for thinking lessons among the adult population. Especially those that write for newspapers.
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Jason Hollands: an apology

Last week the Heresiarch revealed a few details of the Oxford career of Sally Bercow, née Illman, including her relationship with the former Tory candidate and stockbroker Jason Hollands. After being contacted by a national newspaper journalist who had read the post - it appears that, as a perfect gentleman, he had nothing to tell them - Jason got in touch with the Heresiarch to correct a few factual errors which had crept into the report. Unfortunately, he neglected to put a title to his email, which resulted in its being consigned to the spam filter, where I discovered it only this morning. This corrective note is thus somewhat belated.

Mr Hollands informs me that he was never actually president of the Oxford University Conservative Association, as I had incorrectly recalled. He would also like it to be known that his political career did not "stall" - but, rather, "I dropped out of politics by choice". Anything you say, Jason. He further points out that Sally Illman was not (as I suggested) OUCA entertainments officer, but rather, as social secretary, had assisted Guy Feld during his legendary time in the post. This would appear to be true. Yesterday's Mail on Sunday had the full story - based on reports of the time in The Sun - of Illman's role in the notorious cabaret Feld organised in the serendipitously named Baring Room at Hertford College. Feld told the paper what happened:

Terry [the male stripper] complained about the lack of women in the audience. Sally dutifully went up on stage, where he blindfolded her and put a banana in her hand, causing her to shriek.

I don’t recall Terry naked with her at any time and I believe she ran away from him after shrieking. He got fully naked later but she was not undressed in any way.

There was also a female stripper whose act included a python and marshmallows - her interview in the Sun was headlined "My Tory toffs were so sweet". But, rather shockingly, the Mail's sleuths have discovered that "Terry" - who "performed his gyrations to the theme tune from the ITV series Minder" - was in fact the professional name of John Worboys, who earlier this year was convicted of raping several women who had been passengers in his London taxi.

The world is, indeed, stranger and more disturbing than we can possibly imagine. Read the rest of this article

A lesson from history

As everyone is now aware, Britain is by far the most cunning and malevolent of all Iran's enemies. And also one of the most enduring. In explaining Ayatollah Khamanei's remarks the other week, most news outlets drew attention to the UK's role in the toppling of the Mossadeq government in 1953. But that was just one incident among many. There was, for example, a short war in 1856, occasioned partly by what the British saw as Persian meddling in Afghanistan and partly by a diplomatic incident involving the British ambassador in Tehran, whose name was Murray. Murray employed the services of a local man. The prime minister, Sadr Azim, objected - and, when Murray refused to dismiss the man, accused the diplomat of having improper relations with his employee's wife. The truth or otherwise of this allegation I have been unable to establish. But it scarcely matters; after the usual diplomatic protests, the British prime minister Lord Palmerston sent a gunboat and the Iranians were swiftly defeated and forced to back down. Those were the days.

The following year, Sadr Azim sent Palmerston a flowery letter, protesting that he had always valued and promoted friendship with Britain. This drew forth a marvellous riposte:

...So far from your Excellency having been alone in endeavours to preserve friendship between the two governments, your Excellency was the main and principal cause of the cessation of that friendship. I have no doubt that your Excellency, in seeking a quarrel with England, believed that you were promoting the interests of Persia, and I am bound to suppose that your Excellency considered yourself as performing on that occasion the part of a true patriot; and this belief on my part strengthens my confidence in the future maintenance of friendship between the two governments and the two countries, because the events of the war, and the decisive victories obtained by the British troops over superior numbers of Persian troops, must have shown and proved to the sagacious mind and powerful understanding of your Excellency that the true interests of Persia are best promoted by peace and friendship with England, and that the sure results to Persia of war with England would be defeat and disaster.

With every wish for the health and happiness of your Excellency, and with a fervant hope that the reign of your illustrious master the Shah may be long and prosperous, I have the honour to remain your Excellency's most obedient and faithful servant,


Compare and contrast the impotence, ineffectiveness and desultory prose David Miliband's response to Iran's arrest of today's British embassy employees in Tehran. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Other veils, other places

A couple of postscripts to last week's burqa debate, illustrating the rather surprising history of the veil. First, here's a diary entry from Charles Darwin, dated August 1st 1835, when the Beagle made a stop in Peru:

There are two things in Lima, which all Travellers have discussed; the ladies "tapadas", or concealed in the saya y Manta, and fruit called Chilimoya. To my mind the former is as beautiful as the latter is delicious. The close elastic gown fits the figure closely and obliges the ladies to walk with small steps which they do very elegantly and display very white silk stockings and very pretty feet. They wear a black silk veil, which is fixed round the waist behind, is brought over the head, and held by the hands before the face, allowing only one eye to remain uncovered. But then that one eye is so black and brilliant and has such powers of motion and expression, that its effect is very powerful. Altogether the ladies are so metamorphised; that I at first felt as much surprised, as if I had been introduced amongst a number of nice round mermaids, or any other such beautiful animal. And certainly they are better worth looking at than all the churches and buildings in Lima.

Leading Saudi cleric Sheikh Muhammad al-Habadan would surely have approved - of the veil, that is, not Darwin's reaction to it.

And here's Samuel Pepys, 12th June 1663, treating his wife to the latest fashion accessory:

At noon to the Exchange and so home to dinner, and abroad with my wife by water to the Royall Theatre; and there saw “The Committee,” a merry but indifferent play, only Lacey’s part, an Irish footman, is beyond imagination. Here I saw my Lord Falconbridge, and his Lady, my Lady Mary Cromwell, who looks as well as I have known her, and well clad; but when the House began to fill she put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play; which of late is become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face. So to the Exchange, to buy things with my wife; among others, a vizard for herself.

A footnote in the 1893 Wheatley text of Pepys elucidates:

Masks were commonly used by ladies in the reign of Elizabeth, and when their use was revived at the Restoration for respectable women attending the theatre, they became general. They soon, however, became the mark of loose women, and their use was discontinued by women of repute. On June 1st, 1704, a song was sung at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields called “The Misses’ Lamentation for want of their Vizard Masques at the Theatre.”

Far from protecting the women's modesty, these masks enabled some to engage in illicit assignations without being found out. Pinchwife, a character in William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Country Wife, comments that the vizard "makes people but more inquisitive, and is ridiculous a disguise as a stage-beard... tis dangerous; for masks have made more cuckolds than the best faces that ever were known."

I also found this picture of some tribal women from Chad, who appear to have missed the point of veiling somewhat. Read the rest of this article

Back to Black

The Times today carries an illuminating interview with Hanif Kureishi, whose prophetic 1995 novel about radicalising young Muslims, The Black Album, has new been adapted for the stage. At the time, Kureishi notes - and even though it came out just a few years after the Rushdie affair - few people realised the significance of small groups of students and their simultaneous discovery of religion and politics.

Most people in those days weren’t interested in Muslim fundamentalism. It was rather like being interested in Scientology; it was some fringe, small-time, minor activity. It was only much later that it became right at the centre of what we were living through and thinking about.

Kureishi locates the crux of what happened in the wake of the 1989 fatwa in "the transition from anti-racism to fundamentalism". He's also acute about the sympathy radical Islam held - and to some extent still holds - for those on the Left who see everything in terms of class dynamics and were disorientated by the collapse of communism. There's a character in The Black Album, a left-wing council leader, who has shades of both George Galloway and Ken Livingstone. Livingstone "was always entertaining violent clerics at County Hall as part of this identification with the underclass", he comments. But at least Livingstone was consistent:

These convolutions were even more calculating with someone like Keith Vaz who, on the day of the fatwa, rang me up to say ‘Give Rushdie a message that I’m supporting him all the way.’ Not long afterwards, I saw him on the telly calling on Rushdie to withdraw The Satanic Verses from sale!”

Somehow I'm not surprised. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Voile la difference?

For various reasons, that would seem to have more to do with political positioning and opportunism than any genuine sense of urgency, Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out the other day against the wearing of the burqa and other extreme forms of Islamic veil. It was, he said, not welcome in France:

The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom.

The numbers of French Muslim women wearing burqas or niqabs is said to be fairly low: lower than in Britain, certainly. Some have accused Sarkozy, and other politicians who have raised the issue recently, of creating a problem where none really exists, perhaps as a diversionary tactic. This may be true. But even in secular France such dress would appear to be spreading. The niqab at least. The true burqa, the all-encompassing shroud familiar from Afghanistan and tribal regions of Pakistan, in which a mesh prevents even the woman's eyes from being seen, is thank goodness vanishingly rare in both our countries.

There are obvious parallels with the French ban on headscarves (and other religious apparel and symbolism) in schools and public offices five years ago. Then, the debate in France was followed on this side of the channel with a mixture of bemusement and smug confidence in the British way of doing things, which is generally imagined to be more liberal but might equally be characterised as apathetic. Most British commentators explained the strange (to them) French headscarf ban as being somehow connected to the tradition of laïcité (republican secularism) and, more broadly, to a view of citizenship which stressed conformity and assimilation. But while we congratulated ourselves on our greater national "tolerance", few noticed that a much larger Muslim community in France seemed to produce far fewer terrorists or radicals, and almost no-one seemed aware that the strongest supporters of the ban had actually been Muslim feminists.

The cross-channel difference still exists, as Agnes Poirier (in The Times) noted:

For someone like me, firmly on the Left, the defence of secularism is the only way to guarantee cultural diversity and national cohesion. One cannot go without the other. However, when I get on Eurostar to London, I feel totally alien. To my horror, my liberal-left British friends find such a position closer to that of the hard Right.

But the tone this time has been slightly different - partly, perhaps, because in the case of the burqa it is more difficult to pretend that the wearing of it is no more than a simple matter of personal choice.

Even natural supporters of multiculturalism find themselves compelled to admit that there's something deeply unsettling about a garment whose primary purpose appears to be to turn its wearer into an anonymous object. Perhaps, too, the 7/7 London bombings shook people's confidence that the British way of doing things was necessarily the correct one. After all, for all the official talk of pluralism and tolerance, Muslims are conspicuously less well integrated and less content with the political status quo than in either France or Germany, as recent surveys show. There may also have been shifts in the cultural balance of power, as demonstrated by the fall of the Muslim Council of Britain from its formerly dominant position as representative of Islam in the UK. Recent scenes from Tehran - where the attenuation of the veil has appeared to express, for many, a desire for wider political liberation - may have played their part. For whatever reason, there are more public commentators in Britain this time prepared to admit that the French might actually have a point.

For example, Sophie Morris, writes in The Independent about her personal reaction to a woman in a black niqab:

I also felt depressed – depressed that here was a woman entirely shrouding her identity in public. Depressed that she was denied even that most basic social interaction with strangers that comes with walking down a busy street. Most of all it depressed me off because it reminded me of what no one – Muslim, misguided liberal or anyone else – can dissuade me of, which is that the burqa is a tool of oppression.

It may be that the uncompromising nature of French (and Dutch) proposals to ban the burqa has given British columnists permission to voice their own doubts - to admit the truth of what Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (a Muslim herself, of course) has been saying for some time now, for example in May:

There have been enlightened times when some Muslim civilisations honoured and cherished females. This is not one of them. Across the West – for a host of reasons – millions of Muslims are embracing backward practices. In the UK young girls – some so young that they are still in push chairs – are covered up in hijabs. Disgracefully, there are always vocal Muslim women who seek to justify honour killings, forced marriages, inequality, polygamy and childhood betrothals. Why are large numbers of Muslim men so terrorised by the female body and spirit? Why do Muslim women encourage this savage paranoia?

I look out of my study at the common and see a wife fully burkaed on a sunny day. She sits still. Her children and husband run around, laughing, playing cricket. She sits still, dead, buried, a ghost. She is complicit in her own degradation, as are countless others. Their acquiescence in a free democracy is a crime against their sisters who have no such choices in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

These are strong words, drawing a direct link between an article of clothing and more serious abuses of human rights. As it happens, I think Alibhai-Brown is right: the burqa is more than just a piece of cloth, it encapsulates a world view in which women are property and a source of dangerous sexual pollution; that men cannot control their lustful urges and "their" women are vessels of family honour, in the domestic sphere something between a housemaid and a baby-producing machine.

Why would any woman voluntarily choose to shroud herself in this way? Conformity with social norms - deference to male relatives, in other words - is likely to be the predominant reason, along with adherence to a particular (many would say extreme) interpretation of Islam. There are also political reasons for donning such garb: a desire to express Islamic radicalism or rejection of mainstream society. Far from being modest, it can be viewed as arrogant, or at least passive-aggressive. Far from being a rejection of excessive sexualisation it is, in itself, excessively sexual. Historically, indeed, it has often been considered erotic.

Legislating to ban the burqa would be difficult or even dangerous. I don't see how it could be implemented without also restricting people's right to walk down the street wearing V for Vendetta masks or other forms of fancy dress. To be able to dress offensively - within the law - is after all an important right in a free society. What I have a problem with is the notion that it be tolerated, even accorded respect. That opens a door to the radical elements in Islam who want to create religious apartheid in our society. The social stigma attached to the veil helps to restrict its spread, not least by giving reluctant women an excuse for rejecting it. Negative reaction also - as the French public debate recognises - makes a positive statement about the equality and value of women in our society.

If a woman genuinely believes that she is a better Muslim for wearing a niqab or burqa, it is in any case likely that she is labouring under a misapprehension. The Muslim Council of Britain, despite having nothing to say about events in Iran (who cares about Shi'ites, anyway?) has weighed in, accusing Sarkozy of "defying universal values" and "whipping up xenophobia". Spokeswoman Reefat Drabu is quoted as saying that "it is patronising and offensive to suggest that those Muslim women who wear the burqa do so because of pressure or oppression by their male partners or guardians". (What, any of them?) But other Islamic voices have been noticeably muted.

In the Telegraph, Cassandra Jardine quotes the ultra-liberal imam Taj Hargey as questioning veils of all kinds. He "describes the growing belief that Muslim women should cover their head, face and hands as 'doctrinaire brain-washing'", telling Jardine that Sarko "should be applauded for initiating this debate." A more conservative voice, Sheikh Mohammad Tantawi (head of Cairo's Al-Azhar university, whose role in Sunni Islam is somewhere between Oxford and the Vatican) has also come to Sarko's defence. According to Al Arabiya, he said that "every country has its own rules" - and that, in any case, the face veil was not required in Islam.

In a rather confused Comment Is Free piece the other day, Stuart Jeffries chided Sarko for not taking account of Hegel's distinction between abstract and concrete freedom. He even claimed that "a western fashion victim is as much a sartorial prisoner as a woman in a burka". This argument is scarcely original; nor is it entirely without merit (although men increasingly are subject to similar pressures). But to find in it a defence of the burqa is to miss the point: it is not a justification of the veil but rather a criticism of the beauty industry. What it is saying is that expecting women to look like Barbie dolls is almost as bad, almost as objectifying, as expecting them to walk around dressed like bats. It is a demand for social reform in our society, not for social regression in others (or among certain communities in our own).

Jeffries also admitted to feeling "depressed", even though he went on to say "that's my problem". Instead of worrying about Hegel, he should perhaps interrogate his own unease, which strikes me as being both natural and wholesome. His intellectual posturing can't quite overcome his intuition that there's something terribly wrong about the burqa. Veils arouse strong feelings. Much stronger than logic would seem to justify, or their largely marginal status would predict. In Britain, we have a tendency, officially at least, to deny, ignore or even try to outlaw such emotions; in France, they are subjected to exhaustive philosophical analysis and turned into matters of existential importance. That, in the end, may be the biggest difference between us.
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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Torn on the fourth of July

The hardliners are clinging on in Tehran, and fighting back. Official "loser" Mousavi is nowhere to be seen, posters of murdered protester Neda Agha Soltan are torn down, the footballers who sported green armbands will never play for their country again. Repentant opposition supporters confess their "crimes" on TV. The spell, in short, is broken. The opposition movement is disorientated and, largely, powerless. Having right on your side is never enough. In fact, as history shows, it is usually a disadvantage.

But one thing should now be patently clear. The Islamic Republic of Iran is not a special case. The smell coming from the ruling theocrats is not the odour of sanctity. Its repression of thought and dress and debate is not balanced by virtue, moral, religious or otherwise. No. The Iranian government is just another ugly authoritarian dictatorship, determined to employ violence and lies to maintain itself in power.

Most people knew that already, of course. Yet the regime could until now at least clothe itself in the rhetoric of righteousness. It could point to reasonably free elections (albeit among carefully vetted candidates); or to the high motives of its revolution, and the injustices of the Shah; or to its theological justifications. It could hoodwink gullible westerners, both Left and Right, that it represented some sort of "third way" between dictatorship and occidental decadence, as Ayatollah Khamanei described it in his speech on Friday. A "religious democracy" which "attracts the hearts of people and brings them to the center of the arena".

Alastair Crooke of the Conflicts Forum - a former member of the security services - is typical of this sort of thinking. Recently he wrote of the regime:

It is a voyage of discovery to a new “Self” that is far from complete. It has many shortcomings, but its intellectual insights offer Muslims (and Westerners) the potential to step beyond the shortcomings of Western materialism. This is what excites and energizes. As a Hezbollah leader replied to me when asked what the Iranian Revolution had signified for him, he said unhesitatingly that Muslims were free to think Islamically once again.

It is not possible therefore to make sense of the Iranian or wider Islamic resistance without understanding it as a philosophic and metaphysical event, too. It is the omission of this latter understanding that helps explain repeated Western misreadings of Iran, its Revolution and events in the region.

Actually, it isn't. Whatever it may have meant originally, the Iranian Revolution today is just the usual bunch of thugs clinging on to power. But when Crooke says "Iranian resistance", he means its resistance to the west, not Iranians' resistance to their own tyrannical regime, of course.

If you do not feel a lump in your throat at the sight of the demonstrators in Tehran then you have no heart. And you have no sense of history. What of the students who twenty years ago were mown down in Tianenmen Square? Were they not right to want liberty from the oppressive dictatorship that oppressed them? That authoritarian pseudo-communism was too strong for them does not make their cause wrong. The democratic movements crushed by Russian tanks in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 were not wrong because they lost. Nor would they have been wrong had they been outnumbered, had the majority continued to lend their support to an inhuman system. It is no accident that Ahmadinejad's backers reach so naturally for the tools of tyrants and despots throughout history: violence, censorship, intimidation and attempts to block the movement of information into and out of the country. Nor is it an accident that his "victory" has been greeted so warmly by Russia.

Of course they do not represent the whole of Iran. But they represent those elements of Iranian society that are most progressive, most outward-looking and most aware. And if they represent only a privileged minority of the population, so what? Revolutions have always been made by the middle classes. People who are in touch with the outside world, who have the imagination to see beyond the narrow nationalistic propaganda spewed out by their rulers, are less likely to be paid-up cheerleaders for the theocratic despots who control the Iranian state. So be it. They are right; the rest of the country will catch up with them eventually.

I refuse to believe that history is on the side of reactionary clerics whose hired thugs roam the streets assaulting or arresting women the sight of whose hair peaking out from underneath a scarf offends them. I refuse to believe that history is on the side of a Holocaust denier who believes that a promised divine Imam is inspiring his push for nuclear weapons. I refuse to believe that history is on the side of the authorities who would send armed men into the street to shoot an unarmed and inoffensive young woman or into university dormitories to murder students; or of a terrorist regime which locks up political dissidents and which seeks, through the United Nations, to impose its own idea of blasphemy on the entire world. The Islamic Republic is an historical anomaly. Thirty years on, it is finally creaking as a generation comes of age that cares nothing for the abuses committed by the Shah but experiences daily the petty oppression under which they are forced to live their lives.

These are our people. What are their values? Human rights, transparent elections, freedom of thought and expression, pluralism, progress, openness to the world. What do they stand against? Obscurantism, isolationism, reaction. Whichever way it pans out, they are the good guys, and we should cheer for them. So it has been depressing to watch Barack Obama's studied indifference over the past couple of weeks. At first, heavy hints from the White House and the State Department suggested that the Administration actually wanted Ahmadinejad to win, if only because a "friendlier" Mousavi government would be hard to isolate internationally when it inevitably carried on with its nuclear programme. Then, even as it became obvious that the Iranian election had turned into a farce we heard little from either the US or Britain beyond embarrassed groans.

Finally, yesterday, the President spoke. He was "appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days" and suggested that the protestors were on "the right side of history". Not bad words - if rather belated. But his tone was oddly mechanical, lacking in warmth or conviction. It looked like a response to his critics rather than to events in Tehran. Critics like John McCain, who said in a recent interview that Obama should "speak out far more strongly" and "reassert American values and our commitment to human rights we first stated on the 4th of July, 1776".

Talking of the Fourth, a possible PR disaster for the White House looms next Saturday. In a gesture of goodwill at the end of last month, Iranian ambassadors and diplomats around the world were for the first time included on the guest-list for US embassy celebrations of Independence Day. State Department spokesman Robert Wood described the move as being "very much in line with our policy of trying to engage the Iranian government": conspicuousy, no such invitation was issued to Cuban corps diplomatiques. Yesterday, despite Obama's stronger words, the invitation appeared still to be open. The sight of represenatatives of the government that murdered Neda enjoying the fireworks and barbecues would not play well in the US. But perhaps the Iranians will save Obama's blushes by not turning up to eat the corrupt Zionist food. [Update: it transpires that no Iranians accepted the invitations, which will not be re-issued. So that's all right then. H/t Charles Crawford]

McCain was surely right to remind Obama of the words of the Declaration of Independence, which would seem to be apposite at moments such as this:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.

It is said in Obama's defence that reticence is the best policy, that outspokenness would have given the Tehran regime an excuse to blame foreign interference and crack down on protests. But, as is now clear, they did not need any such excuse. And I increasingly doubt the logic of the argument. If Bush, or even a President McCain, had spoken out in favour of freedom and justice for the people of Iran, it would indeed have played to the mullahs' strengths. Bush, after all - for all the boost to Iranian power provided by his adventure in Iraq - was easily characterised as an enemy of Islam. McCain thought that "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" made a suitable campaign song.

But in the past week it is Britain, rather than the US, that has borne the brunt of Iranian condemnation. We may flatter ourselves that the success of the BBC's Persian service has unnerved the hardliners so much they had to resort to expelling our diplomats. It may even be that the diplomats deserved to be expelled, in that they were providing covert hope to the opposition. I would dearly like to think so, though given the present government's track record when it comes to Iran I severely doubt it. No: they went after Britain because it would have been impolitic to attack the United States. Because they know full well how popular Obama is.

Indeed, Obama need have gone no further than repeat his remarks in Cairo:

I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere...

Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.

Obama has a moral authority that his predecessor conspicuously lacked - but there's no point in having such authority if you're not prepared to use it. Unfortunately, there are two Obamas: the idealist who inspires (sometimes) with his rhetoric and the realpolitician who disappoints (more often) with his deeds. And that other Obama was also on display in Cairo. The president spoke warmly of "the Islamic Republic of Iran" (rather than the Iranian people), promising to "to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect". His words then echoed his remarks during the election campaign.

I blame the influence of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's one-time National Security Adviser and, more recently, something of a foreign policy mentor to Barack Obama. In 2004, Brzezinski and Robert Gates - now Secretary of Defense - produced a report for the Council on Foreign Relations on the of Iran-US relations which outlined the strategy adopted since Obama came to power.

The document took for granted that "despite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction" Iran was not on the verge of another revolution and that therefore the US should adopt a policy of "selective engagement". Democracy was of course desirable, but "the forces that are committed to preserving Iran's current system remain firmly in control and currently represent the country's only authoritative interlocutors". It counselled against "the rhetoric of regime change", which would only stir up nationalist sentiment in favour of the government. It even claimed that "Iran's "tradition of constitutionalism and experience in representative government may prove a valuable model for any regional transition to a more democratic order".

Whether you call this policy cyncism or realism, it depends on there being a stable, strong Iranian state in full control of the populace. But it also depends on acquiescence on the part of the American people and its political leadership in that dialogue. Now that the Iranian state has provided fresh evidence of its basically thuggish and undemocratic nature, preaching pragmatism may no longer be possible. Talking to the illegitimate Ahmadinejad and the paranoid reactionaries who stand behind him and pull his strings ought to be out of the question now. The Iranian people deserve to know, without a hint of equivocation, that the free world is on their side.
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Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Speaking of the speaker

A candidate - said to be divisive, and unpopular with many inside his own faction of the ruling political elite - is declared the winner, after an unusually high-profile election campaign, by a surprisingly wide margin. Although he was the front runner when the contest started, in recent days an uninspiring but less provocative rival was said to be attracting widespread support - so the result, when it was announced, comes almost as a shock. Supporters of losing candidates immediately cry foul, threaten to withhold support and co-operation, and can be heard muttering darkly that results can always be changed, that the winner might even be unseated in a few months' time. Others say that it doesn't really matter who won, because the office is largely a ceremonial one, all the candidates were establishment insiders of one sort or another, and in any case the major decisions are always made by the Supreme Leader and his cabal of hand-picked advisers.

All right, that was in bad taste. But the circus surrounding the election of John Bercow as Speaker of the House of Commons has shown our politicians at their worst - when they badly needed to appear at their best. Few of the candidates - certainly not the winner - were untainted by the expenses scandal, and it's hard not to sympathise with the Labour MP John Mann who spoiled his ballot paper on the grounds that they were all "dismal". There are plausible suspicions that some at least of Bercow's Labour supporters were motivated by a desire to wind up the Tories. If so, some have risen to the bait. During Bercow's pitch for the job yesterday, Anne Widdecombe was seen vigorously shaking her head on the bench behind him. Nadine Dorries has been savage in public - including on the radio this morning, when most members of Parliament might be expected to want to ingratiate themselves with the new speaker. Others have been just as unpleasant about him in private.

But not all. One of the few Conservatives who lent Bercow their vote in the final round was the always impressive Douglas Carswell, who explains his thinking on his blog. And very convincing it is. He has little time for fellow Tories crying sour grapes. "We're not going to restore faith in our broken Westminster system with refusals to accept democratic results or with underhand briefings," he says. He also thinks that the very fact he has little support from his own side may turn out to be an advantage:

I switched to Bercow simply because I think he'd be most effective at holding a future Conservative government to account. He's clearly his own man and not afraid to defy the tribe. Surely that's no bad thing in a Speaker?

The problem with Michael Martin was not simply that he was biased: it's that he was biased in favour of the governing party. The domination of the legislature by the executive in recent years has been bad for accountability, bad for democracy, and bad for the public. If the next government is faced by a Speaker who can't be pushed around, then there's some hope at least that Parliament can regain some of its importance.

The one thing Bercow does have going for him is his articulacy, which some see as smarminess but which could make him, if he so chose, an effective advocate for Parliament with the wider public. He lacks the gravitas traditionally expected of a Speaker, but today's public prefers its political leaders to be approachable, even slightly lightweight. Michael Martin had almost no public recognition at all. Betty Boothroyd was a natural star who boosted the reputation of the House by her mere presence. Even she was unable to prevent the Blair government from sidelining the Commons, however - and it is the loss of authority by the elected House, far more than the particular issue of expenses, that underlies the catastrophic collapse in public confidence.

Even with the support of all his fellow MPs - which he conspicuously lacks - John Bercow's job would not be an easy one. For one thing, he has invested in him wholly unrealistic expectations - not least because much of the public discussion has exaggerated the power of the role. The Speaker of the House of Commons is in an unusual constitutional position. Other speakers - that of the House of Representatives, most obviously - are openly partisan political players. Our speaker isn't supposed to speak very much, apart from crying "Order, Order". His duties - in public, at least - consist of not much more than wearing robes and walking in processions. Even behind the scenes his authority is largely moral. Few Speakers make much impact with the public - indeed, like high court judges, keeping a low profile has traditionally been an advantage. Traditionally Speakers wore a wig, which served to distance and elevate them from the hurly-burly of debate. They were impartial umpires, discreetly using their influence and exerting real (though not unqualified) power over the running of the House but belonging more to the dignified than to the effective part of the constitution.

So far, Bercow's elevation to the Speaker's chair has been far from dignified. Conservative MPs - not always, it must be admitted, the most attractive specimens of humanity, however much one may endorse their policies - have behaved with churlishness, even juvenility: sitting on their hands, threatening a deposition, complaining about the fact that, in an election by secret ballot, the candidate with the most votes won. They are of course fully entitled to dislike him. He may even be dislikeable. But, from the evidence of his acceptance speech, Bercow is no Michael Martin. He neither mumbles nor stumbles. He is fully aware of the need to improve Parliament's reputation. And, given that he is likely to be in the job for many years, it is in the interest of every MP, of every party, to support him. Otherwise public disenchantment with the whole political process will continue to grow.

That said, there must be many on the Conservative benches regretting the determination with which they forced Michael Martin from the Speaker's chair. Martin was discredited and an embarrassment - but there was no reason why he could not have staggered on until the election, leaving the choice of his successor to what would probably have been a Tory dominated House of Commons. Despite wild talk of a coup at the start of the next Parliament, removing Bercow (unless he is even more disastrous than Martin, which seems scarcely possible) is almost inconceivable. It's ironic that this unconventional Tory should be one of Labour's last legacies to the nation. But if Conservatives in the House of Commons are upset by this, they have only themselves to blame.
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Monday, 22 June 2009

A European Voice

Timothy Garton Ash has given a fascinating interview to Der Spiegel. I say fascinating, because the language he uses is far blunter than anything he employs when, for example, writing in The Guardian. TGA's enthusiasm for the EU project has never been in doubt, but his comments here smack of someone letting his guard down. To judge from the occasionally strained phraseology, the interview was originally done in German and then translated. But the thoughts are abundantly clear.

Among other things, Garton Ash thinks:

- that Britain has two "social democratic" parties - Labour and the Conservatives. "David Cameron's Conservatives are taking (former Prime Minister) Tony Blair's approach, except when it comes to European policy".

- Mainstream politics in most of Europe has nothing to do with ideology. "Our governments are behaving more and more like managers. After 10 years, voters are dissatisfied with the current management, and along comes a new one....In each case, the voter is voting for a version of European social liberal democracy."

- It is "unsettling" that UKIP got more votes than Labour in the European elections.

- At the same time, it was entirely "rational" of European voters not to take much interest in the Euro elections, because they sense that the EU isn't a proper democracy, "nor will it become one anytime soon". He is of course aware of the possible connection between the undemocratic nature of the EU and support for Euroscepticism, but the only solution he can envisage is a full-blown United States of Europe.

- His explanation for the rise in right-wing parties is that economic disruption produced defensiveness:

Solidarity is certainly a European value, but our willingness to display solidarity also has narrow limits, especially toward the poor, and even more so when they are of non-European origin. This stems partly from the fact that we have developed social welfare states that are difficult to sustain, especially in global competition. The integration of immigrants in the United States is easier, because there is no social welfare state there.

- In the United States, on the other hand, he thinks that things are moving in the opposite direction. "Soon they'll be more European than we are". Barack Obama is "certainly a European" in social policy terms.

This is because the middle class in the United States has experienced the brutality and injustice of the unbridled Anglo-Saxon free market economy firsthand -- in the healthcare system, for example.

- On the success of "joke" candidates (such as the Swedish pirates, or the Romanian Elena Basescu, who is said to be her country's equivalent of Paris Hilton)

First, voters are saying to themselves that the European Parliament isn't all that important, so we can afford to elect a couple of pirates. Second -- and this is something we see everywhere in Europe -- there is a growing, deep dissatisfaction with the political class, to the point of a pre-revolutionary mood. The scandal over the expense accounts of British politicians we are currently experiencing is only one example among many.

- The cause of the Westminster expenses scandal was that "politicians, almost 30 years ago, lacked the courage to approve better pay for members of parliament"

- The "true European elections" will be those taking place in Germany in the autumn. This is "obvious", because Germany is "the most important member state".

- the European project is a "victim of its own success", because people take its achievements for granted.

- a "fully integrated foreign policy" is vital

- Henry Kissinger probably never said that he wanted to be able to ring up and speak to Europe:

We did a lot of research at this university and were unable to find a source for the quote. In the end, I wrote to Henry Kissinger myself, and asked: Where did you say this? His response was wonderful. He wrote: I think I must have said it. I just don't remember when and where.

- There's no reason why member countries shouldn't give up their independence in foreign policy. "Why should something that was true in the past continue to apply in the future? The deutsche mark was the epitome of German identity, and yet the Germans gave it up. The history of the European Union over the last 50 years is a history of impossible things that happened, after all."

- David Cameron's referendum pledge is a bluff:

If you were to inject a truth serum into David Cameron, he would probably have to confess to his secret hope that the treaty will be ratified by then. Then the referendum would no longer be necessary. I believe that, deep in his heart, he is not a euro-skeptic when it comes to Europe. The majority of his MPs and his foreign policy spokesman, William Hague, are euro-skeptics out of conviction. He has to use this rhetoric, especially because the UKIP did so well in the European election. And that's why it is important for the European Union that the end of the Gordon Brown administration be drawn out for as long as possible.

This is certainly in accordance with statements from unnamed senior Eurocrats a couple of weeks ago. It also accords with Daniel Hannan's Telegraph article, which posits the remarkable idea that Peter Mandelson was so determined to keep Brown in office because a snap election would undermine Brussels' plans. Mandy, Hannan wrote, "is destroying Labour for the sake of the EU"

In fact, Hannan's view of the EU is very similar to TGA's, once you make allowances for the fact that one is an enthusiast, the other a sceptic. Hannan:

The lack of democracy intrinsic in Brussels – the way it is run by unelected functionaries, the way it swats aside referendum results – has spilt over into its constituent nations. In order to make an undemocratic system work, they too must become less democratic.

Garton Ash:

I believe that voter turnout will not improve in the foreseeable future, at least not as long as we are not prepared to take the big step toward a United States of Europe, and toward direct democracy. Almost nowhere in Europe are we prepared to do this. ...

I keep hearing the same thing from a wide range of people throughout Europe: The parliament is a self-service shop, and the political class is merely there to pursue its own interests.

Both are far more up-front about what is going on than are most of our politicians

- TGA is happy to repeat the smears put about by Labour spin-doctors about the members of Cameron's new Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament. "Farce begets farce", he comments, "Suddenly they're in bed with Latvian friends of the Waffen SS, Polish homophobes and Czech deniers of climate change". Quite aside from the ludicrousness of the charge, given the colourful backgrounds of some socialist and EPP members of the Parliament, it's striking how naturally someone of TGA's liberal credentials brackets climate change sceptics and people with traditional views about marriage with Nazi sympathisers. Nor is he able to understand why a centre-right but anti-federalist grouping could be an important counterweight to the preponderant integrationist push of the EPP.

- Gordon Brown "isn't a bad prime minister" - he just isn't a very good politician. He "looks ridiculous" on YouTube (fair enough) - because he "looks like a grandfather".

He lacks it completely. He hasn't even managed to simply come across as a direct and upright character, which is something Angela Merkel has mastered. He could have been the Scottish Mr. Merkel. But he's too Blairite for that. He wants to manipulate public opinion, and perhaps the worst thing is to try and fail in that endeavour.

- New Labour are finished. He would bet a magnum of champagne against them being re-elected, even under "the best leader in the world". However, "if this is its death, then it certainly had a nice life." New Labour leaves behind "a fairly substantial legacy" - though the only thing he can think of, apart from three election victories, is that the Conservatives "for the better part have adopted New Labour's approach".
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Sunday, 21 June 2009

A woman with a past

John Bercow may or may not become Speaker of the House of Commons tomorrow. Until recently he was the front runner, largely as a result of strong backing from Labour MPs who appear to regard the Tory MP for Buckingham almost as one of their own. Many Tories, by contrast, can't stand him, though few have been as publicly outspoken as Nadine Dorries who took the the Mail on Sunday to denounce him as an "oily" opportunist who "has coveted the role of Speaker for years and has wooed Labour for its vote". Interestingly, Dorries notes on her blog that

When I was asked to write this, I consulted colleagues within the party, from the top to the bottom... Every single colleague, without exception both urged and encouraged me to meet the request, indeed, even gave me more information than I could incorporate into an article.

She thinks Bercow's election would be a "travesty". Whether her intervention will be enough to stop what Ben Brogan was reporting the other week as a foregone conclusion I've no idea, but Margaret Beckett seems to be catching up fast. It's difficult to see either of them presiding over the kind of shake-ups the public wants to see. Bercow, especially, has some questions to answer on expenses, and his call for a huge pay rise for MPs won't go down well outside Parliament, however justifiable it might seem to some honourable members whose work regularly brings them into contact with people who earn far more than they do. Bankers, for example.

An intriguing figure for some people in this story is Bercow's wife, statuesque advertising executive Sally Illman. Dorries writes of Bercow's "mystifying journey from the far Right to the Left after his marriage to a Labour activist" which "begs the question of stability, as does his lack of almost a single friend on the Tory benches". However, it is now being "revealed" that Sally was once a Conservative. The Mail on Sunday reports that:

Claims that John Bercow abandoned his Right-wing extreme views because of his Labour-supporting wife were challenged last night – after it emerged she had once been a Conservative. Mr Bercow’s ‘cross-party’ love affair has been used to gain support from Labour MPs in the race to become Speaker.

They have been wooed by the story of how the diminutive Thatcherite changed his views after falling for the statuesque ‘Blairite’ Sally Illman. But Ms Illman, 39, has not always been the staunch Left-winger that she is now.

While Guido writes about what he calls the "myth..that John Bercow’s supposed shift to the left is a result of him falling under the spell of a Labour supporting girlfriend", quotes from a speech she gave to the Tory conference in 1993 and comments that "her political history is almost as interesting as her husband’s past". As indeed it is - but Guido offers few details. The Heresiarch can do slightly better.

Illman's influence was credited with changing John Bercow's mind on issues such as same-sex marriage at the time of their engagement in 2002. Actually, things aren't quite so clear-cut. Bercow began his political career, as many Tory boys did in those days, as a hang'em and flog'em member of the right-wing Monday Club. His leftward movement was a gradual process only partly coinciding with his attachment to Illman - though that, too, was a protracted affair.

It is hardly a revelation that Sally Illman was not always a member of the Labour party. Indeed, as the Telegraph reported seven years ago, it was at a Conservative student event in 1989 that the two met. Bercow was a principal speaker. As for Illman, she clearly caught the speaker's eye. The Telegraph quotes Julian Lewis, another Tory MP and Bercow's best man:

"It was I who spotted Sally first during that students' conference," he said. "I told John that she was the most beautiful girl at the meeting, and when I saw the two of them chatting away later that evening, I did the gentlemanly thing and left them to it."

As the Mail notes, when they met Illman was a 19-year-old student at Keble College, Oxford. As OUCA social secretary, Illman was assistant to entertainments officer Guy Feld, who made the tabloids after hiring a stripper for an OUCA function held in the seredipitously named Baring Room at Hertford College. The Mail on Sunday recently unearthed the full story. Feld told the paper what happened:

Terry [the male stripper] complained about the lack of women in the audience. Sally dutifully went up on stage, where he blindfolded her and put a banana in her hand, causing her to shriek.

I don’t recall Terry naked with her at any time and I believe she ran away from him after shrieking. He got fully naked later but she was not undressed in any way.

There was also a female stripper whose act included a python and marshmallows - her interview in the Sun was headlined "My Tory toffs were so sweet". But, rather shockingly, the Mail's sleuths have discovered that "Terry" - who "performed his gyrations to the theme tune from the ITV series Minder" - was in fact the professional name of John Worboys, who earlier this year was convicted of raping several women who had been passengers in his London taxi.

The world is indeed stranger and more disturbing than we can possibly imagine.

At around that time, Illman was dating Jason Hollands, who was one of the leading members of the OU Conservative Association. Hollands - a born-again Christian until Illman deflowered him - was on the traditional wing of the party and a devoted acolyte of the then staunchly right-wing Michael Portillo. He went on to chair the Young Conservatives and later became a parliamentary candidate, though his political career seems to have stalled.

Shortly after dumping Hollands, Illman split OUCA - then controlled by Thatcherites - by standing for election to the committee of the Student Union (not the Union, by the way, but the NUS-affiliated representative body) as a "democratic conservative". She won - but then promptly decamped to the Liberal Democrats. She left Oxford without taking her degree, drifted back into the Tory party for a few years and joined Labour shortly before Tony Blair's election as prime minister.

Illman, in short, has a record of flipping party allegiances that rivals any MP's virtuosity at redesignating their scond home. Hardly surprising, perhaps, that there were those who expected John Bercow to defect to the Labour benches a few years ago along with Quentin Davies. Dorries again:

People in a better position than me to know what was going on say that John considered defecting at the same time.... John denied it, but I vividly recall his reaction when Quentin took his seat with Labour for the first time.

The comments on our benches were unforgiving. John looked shocked and the thought occurred to me: ‘You are wondering if this is what they will say about you when you move over, aren’t you?’

But by that stage New Labour was already visibly tiring, and it would have been more in keeping with past form for Sally to go over to the Tories. She didn't. Perhaps she really had left behind the political promiscuity of her younger days.
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Saturday, 20 June 2009

The most evil regime

The beard has spoken:

It will not be right if we cite a report by some Zionist centers and accuse the system of corruption. This is not right at all. Accusing officials and figures of corruption unreasonably is not right either. Financial corruption is an important issue in the Islamic Republic system and we should seriously fight it at all levels of executive, legislative and judicial branches of powers. We are all duty-bound to fight it and if it is not contained, it will spread. Many countries of the world, including Western countries, that claim to fight corruption and money-laundering, are corrupt to their core. You have all heard about the expenses scandals in the British government and the parliament. The whole world heard the story and those were just parts of the story, it was a lot bigger than what you have heard.

(Ayatollah Ali Khamenei)

No doubt, having seen off the agents of western counter-revolutionary destabilisation, the ayatollah will be poring over this morning's Telegraph, with its souvenir guide to expenses claims. Individual MPs' finances are tabulated like trump cards. But the information itself is not new. So what does Khamenei mean, exactly? I think we should be told. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 19 June 2009

Banning witches probably illegal

I found this statement by High Priestess Amethyst Selma Selene, a.k.a. Sandra Davis, on the website of the Stockport Express:

I think I really need to confirm something here. When I called to book the venue which had been recommended and which I had used many times. I knew it as The Flint Street Social Club, I never knew it was run or attached to the Catholic church and when the Gentleman, who was very nice by the way, answered with Our Lady's I then told him who I was, what we wanted and who were were, totally up front and said that I did not want to compromise them in any way. he assured me that this was a totally separate Buisness venture and that anyone could book the room and then 'do what we want in it' . I would not have continued with the booking had he said any different...

The man who had to also tell me that we couldn't have the room was very apologetic and said embarrased at having to tell me they wouldn't let us have the venue. However, we have now got somewhere else larger and should have a really great time. I never imagined it would cause this much fuss.

This puts a somewhat different complexion on the story. It appears that a long-established and purely secular venue has been taken over by the Catholic Church, which then bans members of particular religious groups from using it. Notwithstanding the name Our Lady's, it would not seem to be an essentially religious venue. It's not a church, or even attached to a church. It's against the law (under the Equality Act 2006) for anyone providing goods or services directly to the public to discriminate because of religion or belief. Our Lady's Social Club, as a "totally separate business venture", would seem to be quite clearly covered by the law.

Section 46 (1) specifies that:

It is unlawful for a person (“A”) concerned with the provision to the public or a section of the public of goods, facilities or services to discriminate against a person (“B”) who seeks to obtain or use those goods, facilities or services

And according to subsection (2),

Subsection (1) applies, in particular, to

(d) facilities for entertainment, recreation or refreshment,

Nor is there any doubt that the definition of religion includes pagan faiths such as witchcraft.

I suggested yesterday that the reason for banning this group owed more to possible embarrassment than a desire to discriminate. But, given that the planned event was not overtly religious in nature (it was, says Mrs Davis, "a family event with dancing, games etc just like any other party") , that is no defence. The Stockport witches have found another (and, it seems, better) venue for their pre-Halloween revels. But they are clearly upset by what they see as religious bigotry. I'm more upset by the fact that whoever vetoed the event seems to be unaware of the law. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Witch-hunts aint what they used to be

It's hard to summon up too much sympathy for the Stockport witches who, according to a report in the Telegraph, were turned down by a Catholic-run venue when they tried to book the facility for their annual Ball.

Says High Priestess Sandra Davis (or Amethyst Selma Selene, as she's known in pagan circles) who runs the Crystal Cauldron shop/coven,

It makes you think that there is still a little bit of that attitude from the past of the Catholics wanting to burn witches. I thought we had made progress, that we could accept other people's religious paths.

Well, four hundred years ago witch-hunters associated with the Inquisition sentenced thousands of entirely innocent people to death for "witchcraft". Today, a church representative suggests that pagan revivalists find a secular venue for their annual shindig. I'd call that progress.

According to Shrewsbury Diocese spokesman John Joyce, "parish centres under our auspices let their premises on the understanding users and their organisations are compatible with the ethos and teachings of the Catholic church". Quite. And it's easy to imagine the kind of headlines that would have followed if the event had gone ahead as originally planned. The Daily Mail would presumably have rung up Ann Widdecombe, who would duly have obliged by accusing the diocesan authorities of "pandering to politically correct multi-faith sensibilities. They'll be inviting Richard Dawkins to speak there next." Meanwhile Damian Thompson would surely have used the occasion as more evidence of the corrosive power of liberal bishops, and urged his groupies to appeal to the Pope.

What puzzles me is why the Wiccan group wanted to be associated with a Catholic venue to begin with. Does not the Roman Catholic faith, with its all-male, hierarchical priesthood, its sexual hang-ups, its patriarchal God and, yes, its history of witch-hunting go against everything that these witches are supposed to believe in? Perhaps Ms Davis and her fellow Wiccans were confused by the hall's name, Our Lady's, and supposed that it was some sort of reference to the Goddess they revere. Or perhaps they're hoping for some free publicity.

With that suspicion in mind, it's interesting to note that this story didn't make the press until after the Crystal Cauldronites were set up in a new venue and started selling tickets to the October bash. "Don't delay : Tickets are selling fast", says the message on their website, which gives further details of the event, which includes a buffet, the Crowning of their new Witch Queen and live entertainment from "tribute duo Abba Fusion". All for £12.50, children half price. Abba Fusion, to judge by the picture, impersonate Agnetha and Anni-Frid rather than Bjorn and Benny, in case you need an added incentive. Quite what the connection is between Abba and paganism I'm not sure. Perhaps Dancing Queen may be taken as a reference to ancient pagan goddesses whose worship included ecstatic dance.

In fact, the Crystal Cauldron sounds depressingly conventional. Besides their fondness for 1970s pop and dressing up in medieval gowns, the notion of a Witch Queen strikes me as rather elitist and hierarchical. Or is she chosen on her looks, thus pandering to patriarchal-hegemonic notions of female beauty (not to mention the poor self-esteem it will engender in those witches who do not become "queen")? Elsewhere on their website, I learn that the group is "a non-skyclad, drug-free coven". In other words, they keep their clothes on. Minus their Harry Potter-style cloaks, they could be members of the W.I. Read the rest of this article