Monday, 27 May 2013

Woolwich and the Snoopers Charter

Some commentators have expressed surprise at the alacrity with which the likes of John Reid, Lord West and Lord Carlile used the Woolwich murder to call for the reintroduction of the Communications Data Bill (aka Snoopers' Charter) long before there was any possible evidence that giving the police and other authorities access to details of everyone's internet use would have made any difference. The sight of such bigwigs demanding draconian new laws, soon to be followed by others, might strike an uninformed observer as part of a co-ordinated campaign. To me, it merely confirmed what I have long suspected, that the security establishment retains undiminished zeal for its long-cherished programme of mass surveillance, and any excuse will do. This was no simple knee-jerk.

Even as it became clear that the two alleged killers (Michaels Adebelajo and Adebewale) already known to the security services - and could therefore have been comprehensively monitored and tracked under already existing law - Home Office sources were letting it be known that Theresa May was very keen indeed to press ahead with new legislation, the only obstacle to the passage of which was assumed to be Nick Clegg. The fact that the Bill was subjected to detailed and devastating scrutiny by a Parliamentary joint committee, and that the Home Office has failed to answer or even respond to the criticisms made of its disproportionate, heavy-handed, vastly expensive and impractical proposals, seems to have been forgotten. Something bad has happened; therefore Something Must Be Done, even something that would (as Eric Pickles, perhaps going off-message, admitted) have made no difference.

But of course something bad was always going to happen eventually, and so the security nuts win either way. They are constantly needy. Highly competent and professional, the true experts (which is why we are asked to trust them) with all the resources of a modern state to draw upon, nevertheless they present themselves as being in desperate need on ever-more power and ever-greater resources, as though they are helpless in the face of a small number of largely impotent and pathetic extremists. Politicians meanwhile want to be seen doing something in response to a crisis. Whether it will actually work, or is at all relevant, is of lesser importance than the legislative activity itself. Precisely because the CDB has been so robustly criticised on civil liberties grounds it has become a totem for people who like to talk grandly of balancing security with civil liberties, a phrase that always seems to mean giving the police and the security services (and a whole lot of other governmental and quasi-governmental outfits) ever more power over the citizen. It is something that authoritarian New Labour dinosaurs like the ex-Communist Reid can wave around as a virility symbol.

The murder of Lee Rigby cannot in itself be a plausible reason for introducing (or wanting to introduce) the Snoopers' Charter, given that the accumulation of masses of data on every British citizen would have made precisely zero difference in the case of men who were already on the authorities' radar. I would go further: Woolwich is actually a good argument against the CDB. Identifying potential terrorists and extremists isn't the problem. Despite the myth of the "clean-skin", almost all those involved in terrorist plots and actions turn out to be known to the authorities, often through a past association with Anjem Choudary. If opportunities were missed to intercept the two Michaels before they committed their outrage, it was not through lack of electronic surveillance, but rather because intensively monitoring even the relatively small number of likely terrorists (around three thousand at most) to the extent that would be necessary is impractical and probably disproportionate. Strangely, the one measure that actually would help to secure more convictions of terrorist suspects, making intercept evidence available as evidence in court, has long been bitterly opposed by the security services.

What the spooks' continued the desire for the CDB reveals is their continued obsession with technical fixes, with IT and with mass surveillance for its own sake. Having access to the information has become an end in itself. It wonuldn't prevent terrorism, but it would open up huge new avenues of potential abuse, as did RIPA. It would represent another giant step towards a fully monitored population, though not of course a final one. Indeed, from the point of view of the securocrats, the CDB is a very imperfect tool, allowing access to information about who someone was in contact with but not to the actual details of what was said. This lack, currently being stressed by the CDB's proponents as proof of its moderation and respect for citizens' privacy, would, before long, be presented by those very same people people as a loophole, one that needlessly prevents the security services and the police from having the evidence they need to keep the public safe.

You can bet that if the CDB or something like it is eventually passed, either by this government or the next, then the next unpredictable terrorist incident will swiftly be adduced as evidence that the Snoopers' Charter didn't go nearly far enough, and that something much more intrusive is now needed. This is a train that only goes in one direction.
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Saturday, 25 May 2013

Permissive Britain is a fertile recruiting ground for Choudary

This is a guest post by Julian Mann

The cub scout mistress who confronted one of Drummer Lee Rigby's killers was a brave lady but in the long term her observation is probably wrong.

Writing in Friday's Daily Mail (24/5), Sir Max Hastings claimed she spoke for the nation when she said: "It is only you versus many, and you are going
 to lose."

One would have to question Sir Max's faith in the current national majority. What if the religiously committed minority becomes larger, better equipped and better organised? What if the ideologically fragmented, uncommitted majority proves too flabby to be able to resist? It is to be feared Sir Max is projecting the more morally cohesive nation he grew up in onto the present one.

By contrast, in Saturday's Mail, Andrew Malone appeared more in touch with the reason why permissive Britain is proving a fertile recruiting ground for young male Islamist killers. In a piece asking "why, in the name of sanity, is Anjem Choudary, whose poisonous teachings influenced the Woolwich killers, free to draw benefits and tour BBC studios spouting murderous hatred against Britain?", Mr Malone described the case of Richard Dart, a white British 26-year-old from Weymouth, Dorset and one of Choudary’s proteges:

"Dart converted to Islam in 2009. He joined Choudary in a private house in East London and, after swearing oaths on the Koran, was re-named Salahuddin Al-Britani.

For  years, ‘Salahuddin’, the son of teachers, had drifted from job to job. A confused young man, with strangely glazed eyes and sallow skin, he once explained to me his bizarre reason for converting to radical Islam.

‘Michael Jackson’s death to me was a sign — he said he was a Muslim, but he didn’t live the life of a good Muslim.’

Surrounded by members of the ‘Islamic brotherhood’, Dart also told me he would be happy to fight — and die — overseas for the cause, and that Islam must defeat Western aggression.

In a chilling portent of the horrors that unfolded in Woolwich this week, Dart also told me that British soldiers were a fair target.

‘The soldiers taking part in these wars are the enemies of Islam, so I don’t support them in any way, nor any man-made government or law,’ he said. These governments are the terrorists.’

Therein lies the attraction of militant Islam to spiritually and morally rudderless young men in a permissive society. Choudary's religion provides a combination of a command structure based on transcendent certainty and an element of adventure and risk.

In an increasingly feminised society, this is a combination in militant Islam that will, unfortunately, prove attractive to a growing number of disenfranchised young men.  A posse of nannies of both sexes in charge of Britain is surely unlikely to inspire them to enter into the promised land of health and safety and Blairite social democracy, a land flowing with all-female shortlists.

The Christian churches of Britain should be providing an attractive spiritual and moral alternative, but sadly, with exception of some of the newer churches, they are not. The older denominations such as the Church of England are unattractive to young men and are now largely attended by and increasingly led by middle-class women.

It is worth considering how different in this respect the older churches of Britain are from the founder of the Christian faith. Jesus of Nazareth inspired a group of young men to take great risks in his cause. But persuasion not violence was the means they used to spread his message, particularly by witnessing to his resurrection from the dead.

Julian Mann is vicar Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire, UK.

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Friday, 24 May 2013

My application to Eton

An entrance exam question from 2011(pdf):

The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but 25 protesters have been killed by the Army.
You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.

Good evening everyone.

I'm sure you all know why I'm talking to you tonight. Like you, I've been deeply shocked by the images we've all seen on our EyeScreens over the past few days. The random, unconstrained violence. The lawlessness and criminality. Streets taken over by gangs of feral thugs. Public buildings attacked. Ordinary hard-working people unable to go about their lives. Children terrified to go to school. Doctors and nurses unable to get to work. Old people afraid to leave their homes.

Worst of all, we've all seen the unprovoked and despicable attacks on members of the Metropolitan Police, our society's first line of defence against anarchy. I'm sure I speak for everyone when I offer my thanks and gratitude for these brave men and women, who selflessly put themselves on the front line on behalf of us all. It's often said that Britain has the finest police service in the world. Well, this past week has proved it. Tragically, five fine officers lost their lives in the violence. Sgt Paul Franks, a 33 year old husband and father whose wife Sue spoke so movingly this morning. PC Brian Blogs, just 21 and the apple of his mother's eye. PCs Bob Southwell and Kevin Manx, two exemplary officers. And Sgt Tony Fallguy, who has been described as one of the most promising officers in the district. Let me be quite frank with you: These unarmed men were murdered. They were murdered mercilessly and cold-bloodedly by thugs who shame our society. So my first promise to you is simple: their killers will be hunted down and brought to justice. They will have no hiding place.

Some people have asked if these deaths were necessary. Whether the police were properly protected. Whether all possible precautions were taken to keep them safe. Whether new laws and powers are needed to deal with violent disorder. Whether the army should have been brought in sooner to reinforce the police. I have already ordered an inquiry into all the circumstances of their deaths. Lord Justice Cocklecarrot has agreed to lead the review, and we can all be confident that he will ask the necessary questions. No doubt there will be lessons to be learned for the future. But without prejudicing the inquiry, I think I can say that the only responsibility for the deaths of those five officers lies with the criminals who used the cover of a mob to perpetrate acts of extreme violence.

It was of course with great reluctance that I decided to call upon the regular army to restore peace after the rioting had continued for four days and nights. I cherish the British traditions of our unarmed police force. But I'm sure you all understand the nature of the emergency that this country was facing. The rioters were a tiny proportion of London's population, in no way reflective of the law-abiding majority. Yet for the best part of a week they were able to paralyse the nation's capital. The riots threatened not only peace and order, but our infrastructure and our economy. As prime minister, my first duty is to secure law and order. To preserve the King's peace. To keep the country safe on behalf of all our hard-working families. I have no doubt that bringing in the army was the right thing to do. And I'm sure that you'll join with me in thanking our brave soldiers for their swift and professional job. Along with the police, the armed services represent the best of us.

Inevitably, there were a number of casualties among the rioters. Of course, I regret any deaths. And the deaths will of course be investigated. But I want to make one thing crystal clear: everyone who took part in those riots chose to be there. The young men and women who sadly lost their lives chose to put themselves in danger; chose to take up sticks and stones against the police and, later, the army; chose to ignore repeated requests to disperse. No-one forced them to threaten innocent members of the public, to trash key buildings or to disrupt the life and work of London. I make no apology for asking the army to restore order. It was not only the right thing to do, it was the only thing to do. I have no doubt that taking this action helped to save many more lives than were unfortunately lost. And I think I can be confident of your support.

So let me conclude by once more paying tribute to the murdered police officers, and also to the courage and resolution shown not just by the police and the army but by every one of you in recent days. Now more than ever I'm incredibly proud to be the prime minister of this great country. I know that, together, we will get through this difficult period. Good evening to you all.
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Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Problem with Humanist Weddings

This afternoon, an amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) bill was debated which would have allowed humanist celebrants to officiate at wedding ceremonies in England and Wales, as they already do in Scotland. The move, restricted to well-established charitable organisations embodying humanist principles (of which the British Humanist Association is the main but perhaps not the only example) attracted widespread support on all sides of the House. But it was withdrawn following government objections, some of which had a last-minute flavour. In particular, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, maintained that by singling out humanists for special favour in this way the amendment would fall foul of equality legislation.

This line of reasoning surprised many humanists, especially as it was apparently on ministerial advice that the BHA's clause restricted the opportunity to conduct weddings to humanist groups. I debated this with them on Twitter earlier today. I suggested that sponsoring an amendment that would benefit only them looked like privilege-seeking and wanting to join an exclusive club. What about pagans or spiritualists, whose designated representatives are in fact permitted to conduct legally valid weddings in Scotland? They shot back that they had originally called for all "belief groups" to be allowed the same right, but that the government said that this would create too many difficulties. In particular, it would allegedly have interfered with the Bill's carefully-balanced "quadruple lock" requiring religous organisations to opt in to same-sex marriage - which is, after all, what the bill is supposedly all about. Fair enough, although one might have hoped that the BHA would stick to its principles rather than accept a squalid compromise that was in no-one's interest but its own.

As I said, the amendment attracted a lot of support in the Commons. Conservative MP Crispin Blunt thought that it was "glaringly obvious" that humanist weddings should be allowed. Many of the MPs who spoke in its favour, on the other hand, were keen to dispel fears that the move would open the floodgates to pagan weddings, Spiritualist weddings, or even Jedi weddings. Quite why pagan weddings should be characterised as such a danger while the prospect of humanist weddings was genuinely welcomed and (leaving aside the supposed difficulties) uncontroversial isn't clear. Perhaps it's because Humanism is now respectable. Even the Bishop of Chester, the House was told, supports the idea of humanist weddings; whereas most right-thinking people still think of pagans as a bit weird, at best eccentrics with bad hair and silly robes, at worst partial to nude orgies and the odd bit of cat sacrifice. Perhaps it's because there are lots of humanist MPs but (as far as I know) no pagan ones.

My own instinct is the other way round. If you believe in religious freedom, as we all do, then there's an obvious need to allow pagans to celebrate legally valid marriages on the same basis as more conventional religious groups. Pagans have their gods and goddesses to evoke, a sacramental conception of marriage (in pagan theology, if I have this right, the union of the sexes embodies the procreative spirit of the cosmos which is the primary object of pagan worship) and distinctive rituals, such as "handfasting" and jumping over a broomstick. A humanist wedding, on the other hand, is very much what you make it.

I don't doubt that there is enthusiasm among some for Humanist weddings; nor do I doubt that Humanist weddings in Scotland are very popular and conducted with aplomb. But I do question whether the need is quite so pressing as Humanist leaders seem to think. Civil ceremonies, which are available in a multitude of fine locations, already offer couples considerable flexibility of form and content, provided only that the prescribed words are said by an official registrar. People can choose their own songs and readings. And civil ceremonies already embody, in their very essence, what must be the underlying principle of humanist weddings as such, which is that it is possible to conduct such rites of passage without any reference to God. Indeed, the rules strictly forbid any mention of religion, and registrars can be notoriously severe and jobsworthy in their adherence to secular principles, to the extent of banning such popular tunes as Robbie Williams' Angels.

When I put these points to BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson the other day, he replied that Humanist content is now equally disallowed, because recent equality legislation expands the category of "religion" to include "religion and belief". He also stated that some registrars had now developed an eagle eye for anything that smacked of Humanist content and exerted themselves to ban it. Now, I'm always ready to believe tales of sour-faced activism on the part of petty officials; it's what many of these sad people seem to thrive on. But it also strikes me as an over-reading of a law that specifically refers to a ban on religious content in secular wedding ceremonies, and does so for the good reason that if you want religious content in your wedding, you can do it in a church (or synagogue, or gurdwara, or whatever you happen to be). The law is anxious not to mix up the sacred with the secular. And Humanism is not a religion. Let me say that again. Humanism. Is. Not. A. Religion. It is a belief system, a philosophical approach to life but so is vegetarianism. So is Environmentalism. Idiot registrars who think that Humanistic messages should be banned as being "religious" should be argued with, not indulged by the British Humanist Association.

Unless the BHA does believe that Humanism is a religion, of course.

Unlike Humanist funerals, which do answer to a particular need, Humanist weddings strike me as inessential. I should stress that I don't have any objection to them. But then I don't have an objection to any other group conducting weddings either. Why shouldn't Freemasons or Jedi Knights depute officials to conduct weddings? Why shouldn't you, so you desire, be married by an Elvis impersonator, or by a Paris Hilton lookalike, or by Mr Spock? Why not have Socialist weddings, in which the parties promise to have all things in common, or Conservative weddings in which wives promise to obey and husbands to be economically productive? Why, for that matter, shouldn't Virgin or Tesco employ wedding celebrants and offer package deals? I'm quite serious. If you want to open up marriage, in a modern world in which free citizens will often have their own wishes on how to celebrate one of the most significant moments of their lives, then open it up. Don't privilege one particular quasi-religion, give it special legal status as a marriage registrar, because not believing in religion is so personally important to some people that an entirely secular wedding just won't do.

Humanism is not a religion. It is a set of beliefs, coherent enough but varying from individual to individual (as true humanism should) that can provide a basis for life, including married life. But having a humanist wedding is not part of the core belief of Humanism. (Having a secular wedding might be, but they can already have that.) I don't think I'm splitting hairs. I have great respect for individual humanists and for Humanism as a philosophical system but I am uneasy about the way that, partly because of the way modern equality and identity politics has developed, it is increasingly treated, an acts, like a pseudo-religion. There may be a somewhat indistinct line between religion and non-religion, but Humanism is on the non-religious side of it. And that is where it should stay.

How does this apply to marriage? To answer this question, we have to ask another one: why do religions conduct marriages at all? What business do churches, synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples and the like have in conducting legal formalities? Some people would of course rather that they didn't, and that there was a strict distinction between civil registration and religious (or humanist) ceremonies, as there is in many other countries. But that's not my point. My point is this: religions concern themselves with marriage because traditionally religions assert the right to regulate the sex lives of their adherents. That's what religions do. They maintain that sex before marriage is wrong, that adultery is sinful, that children should be born inside marriage, that God cares about this stuff. It is because religion has claimed this prerogative that people are married in church rather than at the local tiddlywinks club (a facetious point raised by Dominic Grieve).

Does Humanism, even in its latest, quasi-religious incarnation, claim stewardship of humanists' sex lives? Of course not. Sexual ethics will feature in most humanist philosophies, but Humanism doesn't exalt the state of legal marriage as the ideal to which humanists should conform. I know many humanists who are into polyamory and the like. On what basis, then, do Humanists wish to marry people, a power they would presumably deny to Tiddlywink clubs if not to pagans? At most, on the somewhat naive basis that Humanism is a replacement for religion, and marrying people is what religions do, so Humanism should do as well. In its push for Humanist weddings, the British Humanist Association, not for the first time, seems to be suffering from a big case of religion-envy.
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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Carry on snooping

The Snoopers' Charter is dead, right? Nick Clegg killed it the other week, putting an end to the Communications Data Bill, the latest incarnation of the Home Office's long-term plan to store details of everyone's website visits and email communications. Instead Her Maj today announced some modest-sounding (though in practice rather tricky) idea about solving "the problem of matching internet protocol addresses". But lest this lull people into thinking that the grand design of the CDP had been ditched after its original draft was ripped to shreds last year by a Parliamentary committee, the Home Office was soon spinning that the Snoopers' Charter was very much still in play.

A superficially vague assertion that the government was "committed to ensuring that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to protect the public and ensure national security" raised many reporter's suspicions, and the Home Office has done nothing to disabuse them. Thus the BBC's Jane Wakefield writes of the "government's determination to increase surveillance powers to take account of new technologies such as social media, web mail and internet phone calls". Meanwhile, a Home Office spokesperson "confirmed to Techworld that the government is still looking closely at ways to provide law enforcement and intelligence agencies with the information they need to ensure public safety, and this may involve legislation".

Says Emma Carr of Big Brother Watch:

It is beyond comprehension for the Home Office to think that this gives them licence to carry on regardless with a much broader bill that has been demonstrated as unworkable and dangerous by experts, business groups and the wider public. It is not surprising that some officials may want to keep trying, having already failed three times under two different governments, to introduce massively disproportionate and intrusive powers, but that is quite clearly not what Her Majesty has put forward today.

But is it really "beyond comprehension". Is it not rather just what one would expect?

As Mark Wallace notes, this is "a classic example of a policy which the Civil Service has decided to pursue at all costs, hence the fact it crops up so regularly, regardless of which party is in power, and is proving so hard to shake." Indeed. It's worth digging up an old quote from Henry Porter, who used to be the Guardian's civil liberties guru during the dark days of New Labour (whatever became of him), and who wrote in April 2009 of what was then called the Interception Modernisation Programme,

The civil servants behind the scheme have a very long horizon indeed – an agenda that is designed to survive cuts in public spending and any change of government. They will argue the urgent necessity of the case with force and plausibility to inexperienced Conservative ministers, as they have done to the co-operative second raters in the present government."

Theresa May, despite a promising start, has proved to be both abject and gullible when it comes to Home Office advice, to the extent of making it seem to all the world that the Communications Data Bill was her own baby. This of course suits the simple-minded approach of the political commentariat, who can only conceive of such measures in terms of jockeying for position between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. (The Telegraph, for example, heading its account of today's Home Office spin as "'Snoopers' charter' resurrected by Conservatives".) More cannily, Mark Wallace points to the role played by the ex-spook Charles Farr, described as the architect of the grand design and as the "Home Office's top securocrat." Farr, who is also said to be the brains behind the recent secret courts legislation, happens to be the partner of Theresa May's special adviser Fiona Cunningham, something that is rumoured to have stymied his chances of becoming Permanent Secretary at the HO, but which is unlikely to have prevented his advice getting through to May herself.

The Snoopers Charter may be both intrusive and impractable, as well as hard to justify in terms of cost, not to mention bad for the economy, but all the signs are that the permanent government remains enormously committed to it. In opposition, the Conservatives were as solidly opposed to the plans as Nick Clegg (with much prompting from the grassroots) latterly turned out to be, but that didn't stop them falling for the Home Office schtick. Labour are barely even going through the motions. "Labour has missed a huge opportunity to redefine itself as a party of civil liberties" complains Ed Paton-Williams (there's a nice proletarian name for you) on Labour List; they "remained silent" when they should have been a leading voice against the Bill and "started the process of positioning itself as the party of civil liberties that Ed Miliband clearly wanted to lead."

Indeed. Given how easy it would be for Labour to discover, once they won the next election, that there was after all for a pressing need for the Snoopers' Charter, there's no reason for them to oppose it so half-heartedly now (unless, of course, they're still in thrall to Blairite fears of being found anywhere to the left of the Tories on questions of law and order). But then we remember how genuinely enthusiastic Labour was about pursuing an authoritarian agenda when in government; it would be expecting too much for them to change now.
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