Saturday, March 12, 2005

This is what they want you to forget

Spot. On.

That is all.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Thank the Lord for the Lords

Overnight, the British parliament has been working exactly as it should. The House of Lords has been debating and stalling the government's God-awful anti-terror bill, and is - entirely rightly - refusing to allow this horrible piece of legislation to get a permanent place on the statute books.

Poor little Home Secretary Charles Clarke - the man who wants the power to lock up any and all British citizens without trial - has accused the Lords of "digging in its heels". Those four words from the Home Secretary are the final proof - as if any more was needed - of the current government's utter contempt for the British parliamentary system.

The entire POINT of the House of Lords is to do precisely what it has been doing over the last few days. The Lords' sole purpose is to prevent a Commons dominated by one party with a large majority from passing bad legislation via a three-line whip. The Lords is there purely to say - "hang on a minute, lads - this clause here looks rather conducive to misinterpretatition and abuse - how about changing it?"

So, thanks to the oddities of the British system, the unelected (and therefore undemocratic) House of Lords is helping to prevent the elected (and therefore democratic) government of Tony Blair from introducing fundamentally undemocratic legislation.

What Blair has done is mistake democratic legitimacy for moral legitimacy. The Lords, meanwhile, understand their moral duty far better than the compromised Commons. MPs are bound by the party line and - with an election coming up - don't want to be seen to be too rebellious lest they have their funding cut off for the campaign season. The Lords, meanwhile, are technically in the upper house purely on their own individual merit. It is a personal honour to be in the Lords - becoming an MP is far more of a group effort. The Lords thus have far more freedom of action against the party line, and are far more likely to act on their own personal belief systems than one imposed from above by the leadership.

Yes, this is largely theoretical. No one seriously thinks the Blair government will deliberately misuse the powers of detention it would grant itself with this bill. But that's part of the problem. If this bill is passed, it will stay on the statute books until the war on terror is over or another government has a sufficient majority to overturn it. As long as it remains on the statute books, there would be precisely NOTHING to prevent any future government from arresting and detaining its political opponents, or even people who might plan to vote against the government in an election. That is why this bill is so fundamentally undemocratic.

The unelected Lords are doing a better job of preserving democracy than the people we have elected to preserve our basic democratic freedoms. Blair and co. are, meanwhile, doing a better job than the terrorists of buggering up our traditional rights.

Update: Bloggerheads has more, (Oh, and while you're there, check out the new Backing Blair video)

While we're at it, perhaps a history lesson is in order?

There are a lot of angry people about, Mr Blair:

"But what do I do? Moan, vow never to vote for Labour again (nothing new there then), basically sit on my arse and complain. I suppose I should be out there putting bricks through windows or assassinating Tony Thatch-Blair (a mercy killing if ever there was one, i.e. a mercy for the rest of us).

"I suppose that all the active demonstrating that I have ever done (dating back to the mid 60s folks) has acheived - fuck nothing!"
Another take - Tony Blair is a liar, a control freak, lacks any degree of backbone and makes Robert Mugabe look like a really nice person - Mugabe comparisons a tad harsh, perhaps? (Then again, I've been known to do the same...)

Meanwhile, Lib Dem MP Richard Allan has found time to post amidst all the chaos, pointing out that "You may wish to note that today is officially still Thursday in Parliament as the House has remained in session overnight. Thursday can continue until Sunday if we keep debating and voting like this. Does that make sense? As much as anything around here I suppose."

However, "No one really knows where this is going to go. The sunset clause seems the most sensible thing here, and I am hoping the government will finally concede on this. It makes sense to force Parliament to entirely rewrite this piece of trash after one year. Doing so does not "increase the terrorist threat" or "show weakness to terrorists" as the Government is saying. This is one of the worst defences of a bad piece of law that I have ever seen, and it is making me more than a little suspicious that there is something more behind this Bill than the Government is letting on."

Meanwhile, the irony is beginning to sink in all round: "It is a sad day for British democracy when our freedom ends up being defended by a bunch of bishops, heritary noblemen and political appointees, but defend it they have done. Not only that, but a group of people notorious for falling asleep during debates stayed up until 6:00am this morning to vote down Tony Blair's attempts to ride roughshod over the rule of law."

Update 2: the BBC's Have Your Say seems to show that the majority are against, but some people still think that safety is more important than freedom.

I have the perfect solution for these people: if the new legislation is passed, the government can lock you up indefinitely, perhaps in a nice secure underground bunker. Then the terrorists won't be able to get you. After all, according to P. Bradley from Wrexham, N. Wales, "Security is very important and inconvenience is a small price to pay for safety".

(Oh, and Blogger's comments seem to be acting up - if you have anything you want to say on this and comments aren't working, bunk me an email...)

Update 3: More goodness:
"Tony Blair isn't so much a king as an emperor. Like Julius Caesar, he believes his own vision is more important than the processes and institutions of the Republic. It must be, because he's a Good Man with the world's best interests at heart. Anyone in the way is a either a Bad Man who seeks to destroy us, or a Foolish Man who fails to understand the realities of the situation."
Plus: "How much political dissent can one express in public before risking being subject to a 'control order' imposed by the State? I'd normally think the term 'police state' to be hyperbolic, but the definition in Roger Scruton's Dictionary of Political Thought is worryingly pertinent.
"police state. A state in which political stability has come to be, or to seem to be, dependent upon police supervision of the ordinary citizen, and in which the police are given powers suitable to that. [...]"
Plus The UK Today has some interesting reminders about Blair and co.'s committment to fighting terrorism:
"In 1974 Roy Jenkins, the then Labour Home Secretary, introduced the original Prevention of Terrorism Act, which went on the Statute Book in November 1974. This was at a time when terrorist activity in mainland Britain was an all-to-frequent occurence. John Prescott voted in support of two ammendments aimed at weakening the act. Yet the most significant power in this Act was to grant the police the power to detain a terrorist subject for up to a week without charge.

"The 1974 Act had to be renewed by Parliament every year. And every year Labour opposed the renewal of the Act. Some of the opponents now in the Cabinet included:

"1989: Tony Blair, John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett, Alistair Darling, John Reid, Paul Murphy, Hilary Armstrong, Paul Boateng, Ian McCartney.

"1994: Tony Blair, John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Margaret Beckett, Alistair Darling, John Reid, Paul Murphy, Hilary Armstrong, Paul Boateng, Ian McCartney, Alan Milburn, Geoff Hoon, Tessa Jowell, Peter Hain."
Lest we forget, this was a period when terrorist attacks were commonplace. The number of terrorist attacks in mainland Britain since mid-October 2001? Precisely ZERO.

Update 4: The Lords are still going strong as of early afternoon. Meanwhile, Charles Clarke says "the country needs a bill which prevents terrorism and protects our people". Yes, Charles, yes it does. So why the fuck hasn't the government produced one?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"Tidying up" vs. "Federalisation" and "anti-European" vs. "anti-EU"

A couple of posts on the two semi-official pro-EU blogs have once again attracted demands from Eurosceptics for explanations and clarifications. First, over at Commissioner Wallström's place, someone asks:

"Here in the UK, our Labour politicians say that the European Constitution is only a 'tidying up excercise', while on the continent most politicians state categorically that it is the foundation of a Federal Europe. If one is right, then the other must be either lying or ignorant Where do you stand on this issue?"
As I know you're all fascinated (and so I've got a record of it), here's my wonderfully astute response:
Typically enough, both are (sort of) correct. It can happily be seen as either, depending on your point of view. It does tidy up previous treaties into one single document (notably sorting out some of the more useless parts of the shoddy Nice one), and introduces a few other areas where EU bodies can have some influence in the lives of the individual member states.

Some of these new areas could - eventually - lead to a more federal structure (after all, the EU is already federal in its loosest definition). Whether this will actually happen or not is another matter entirely. Considering each member state will retain their vetos in a number of important areas, and that new areas of Qualified Majority Voting require majorities of both member states and EU population, it is unlikely actually to lead to any kind of closer political federation unless all member states agree. As long as countries like Britian remain wary, it is highly unlikely.

It would, however, be foolish utterly to discount the possibility that at some stage in the future a closer federation may be a sensible move, so that is left as a vague possibility to appease that minority of European politicians who would genuinely like to see a "United States of Europe".

In other words, the problem with the constitution is not that it's a shift to federalism, but that it's trying to appeal to everyone at once. The fact that it has aspects that can appeal to (almost) everyone naturally means that it can be interpreted in numerous different ways. In such an insanely long and complicated document, it's hardly surprising that there's a lot of room for interpretation - but it includes safeguards to help ensure that no member state will have an interpretation of the thing imposed upon them if they disagree with it.
Meanwhile, over at the Yes Campaign blog, someone suggests that rather than pro-European / anti-European, the terms "Pro-Political Union" and "Anti-Political Union" be used instead.

Again, here's my brilliantly insightful take:
The trouble with that is that there would still be confusion over precisely what is meant by "political union". If it means union in a European superstate along the lines of the USA, then many pro-EU people who would like to see more integration and cooperation (myself included) would be opposed. Just because you are pro-EU and want to see more cooperation does not necessarily mean that you want an utterly centralised federal state to emerge from the current system.

Personally, I normally go for "pro-EU" and "anti-EU" - but even they have their problems as terms. "Pro-EU" can easily be (and frequently is) mistaken for meaning "supportive of the current EU system, everything it does, and everything it seems to be wanting to achieve". Many people (again, myself included) who would consider themselves "pro-EU" are actually highly critical of the current system. There are very, very few "pro-EU" people who would deny that the current EU has its flaws - many of them major. Nonetheless, they all think that these flaws can be rectified.

Again, however, they do not necessarily agree on what the best solutions to the current problems may be. What they do all share is a belief that it is in the best long-term interest of all European states to cooperate more closely. Quite what they mean by "long-term" is, however, yet another matter again...

Rabid self-righteous maniacs

Via Nick Barlow, some fun new Google-bombing opportunities present themselves to piss off those stuck-up heirs of irritating bint Mary Whitehouse who seem constantly to be plaguing our lives with their pathetic attempts to impose their own repressive moralities on the rest of society.

So, check out the new Christian Voice and Mediawatch UK sites. (Actual sites, for comparison, here and here).

If stuck-up religious freaks who failed to read that bit of the Bible which went on about "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" piss you off as much as they do me, might I direct you also to Mediawatchwatch, a blog I've been meaning to link for a while.

The IRA in "we're violent psychopaths" shocker!

A very odd development - if only for the fact that something everyone has known to be the case for the last 30+ years is finally out in the open, as the IRA has offered to shoot those of its members responsible for the death of Robert McCartney back in January. And - after decades of requests from the British government to stop supporting terrorists and three and a half years after 9/11 - the White House has finally seen the light and decided not to invite any representatives of the IRA's political wing to the White House for St Patrick's Day celebrations.

I am unsurprisingly not a fan of the IRA, so doubt I'm in much of a position to offer decent commentary. Instead, I suggest you check out the superb Slugger O'Toole, which is keeping a close eye on developments and reactions from all quarters. They have the full text of the IRA's statement, some interesting discussions, and lots of reasoned and knowledgable analysis. Well worth a look if you're at all interested in this forgotten war on terror.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The European Commission, lobbying and corruption

A friendly reader points out this story about moves to tighten regulation of Brussels lobbying, as moves continue apace to make EU agricultural funding more transparent. Both initiatives should be welcomed by all sides - after all, both pro- and anti-EU propaganda rarely has clear origins, and the Common Agricultural Policy is so shrouded in secrecy it's very hard to tell just how rubbish it actually is (although in case you're wondering, the answer is "VERY").

In launching his initiative to make lobbyists disclose their financial backers, the Anti-Fraud Commissioner, Siim Kallas, has made the entirely sensible point that "the issue of integrity should not be limited to public institutions". However, typically, certain critics seem to take the view that nothing's good enough, and want Brussels to run before it's got the hang of walking.

EU lobbying organisation the Society of European Affairs Practitioners (SEAP) currently has its own, very vague and entirely voluntary Code of Conduct, which effectively states that anything's fine as long as you don't get caught ("Signatories will voluntarily resign should they transgress the code" - emphasis mine - there is no procedure to sack dodgy lobbyists who deliberately mislead or corrupt).

Advice on lobbying techniques in the EU also makes clear how suspect is the current system, in which all lobbyists are desperate to get to people in the European Commission, who are perceived to have more influence than anyone at the European Parliament:

"Taking into account that the EP is a rather open and accessible Institution, it is important to realise that the EC is a less accessible house, full of specialists and national experts who crowd hundreds of committees. One of the challenges for EU Affairs specialists is to get access to the right documents on time. Also, in the beginning one will hardly get the chance to speak to senior staff but with junior officers or civil servants. EU Affairs specialists therefore should try to build up long lasting relationships with senior experts that are of relevant importance to their case."
The equivalent situation if this was going on in the UK would be if lobbyists were hanging around Whitehall sucking up to minor civil servants, hoping that by being nice to a junior researcher at the Home Office they might eventually get to an Under-Secretary, and thus subtly influence departmental policy via the typical machinations of the Sir Humphreys of this world.

A tad dodgy, I'm sure we can all agree - although also entirely understandable, as it is, after all, the lobbyists' job to gain access and influence. In the absence of any regulations, there's no reason why they shouldn't try to win over Commission workers. Except, of course, that the current system breeds conflicts of interests, greatly increases the possibilities for corruption, and threatens the distortion of EU policies to benefit individual companies and organisations at the expence of EU taxpayers. It is very easy to make someone feel obliged to help you out even without bunking them a brown envelope stuffed with cash - a drink here, a work-reducing briefing paper there. This is precisely why civil servants are meant to be free from lobbying influences, and why UK Members of Parliament are forced to declare all their extra-parliamentary activities and incomes on the Register of Members' Interests.

This move would be a good step towards cleaning up the Commission, and is yet another acknowledgement that the current system is not up to scratch. However, because there is so much work to do, any initiatives on behalf of the Commission are met with - mostly justified but often unfair - accusations of hypocrisy.

In an absolutely typical move, the suggestions that regulation of lobbyists to cut down on fraud should be implemented has been met with hefty implications that the Commission has double-standards. After all, the Commission is well-known for being corrupt, nepotistic and unaccountable - what right does it have to tell the lobbyists to clean up their act? SEAP head Rogier Chorus has said as much already:
"Chorus is... sceptical at the suggestion that lobbyists should disclose their client's identity and the amounts of money they are being paid to perform their task. 'I wouldn't accept that at this stage,' he commented, adding that the Commission should 'do its homework' and clean its own house first by making officials 'less vulnerable to bribes'."
What this, of course, fails to acknowledge is that civil servants - which is what the vast, vast majority of Commission workers actually are - should not be getting approached by lobbyists in the first place, as their sole purpose should be impartially to implement Commission and EU policy (please note - Commission workers, not Commissioners). Ban lobbyists from approaching them, they are instantly less vulnerable to bribes - be these literal or psychological.

It is, of course, very easy to take cheap shots at the Commission - and many of them are utterly deserved - but this on-going attitude that seems to suggest that the institution has no right to tell anyone what to do until it gets its own house in order is merely childish. Yes, the Commission is not directly elected; yes, it has a record of corruption. This does not mean that it is incapable of spotting and tackling corruption and lack of accountability elsewhere.

If, as should eventually happen, the Commission ends up in its rightful place as the EU's civil service, and the semi-executive power which is currently in the hands of the Commissioners is separated from those who actually implement EU-wide policy (in other words, so that the Commissioners end up more like Ministers, rather than the combination of Minister and Permanent Secretary that they currently are), it will be in part due to measures like this aimed at de-politicising Commission workers.

To resort to tired cliche, Rome wasn't built in a day. Sorting out the Commission's problems will take a long time, but it is small steps like this which can put it on the right road.

Monday, March 07, 2005

"The EU is a political project"

I'd been trying to find a link about this story on and off all day. Basically yet another of these "former advisors" of Tony Blair who seem to pop up every now and again has emerged from the woodwork, and his comments are liable to be distorted beyond all recognition. The chap in question was Tony’s policy adviser on Europe from 1997-2004, and is basically making points similar to many of those I've raised in the "EU Debate" section of the archives to the right there.

Although many of the points raised are fair enough, typically what is not acknowledged is the sheer impossibility of being "honest" when it comes to the EU. The primary contention of the ex-advisor, Roger Liddle, is that there needs to be acknowledgement that the EU is a "political project" from the pro-EU camp in the UK.

Well, erm... Yes... Obviously it's a political project, the question is to what extent - and on that no one can agree. That's the real problem.

Is it "political" in the sense that it's shifting towards political union, that it's being carried out by politicians, that it's related to governments, that it affects the people, or any of the other many interpretations of the term?

Equally Liddle could call for the pro-EU camp to "admit" that the EU is federal. Because it is - by a broad definition. What it is not is "federal" by the definition many opposed to the EU claim it to be pushing towards - namely that wonderfully scary-sounding "United States of Europe", which summons up ideas of a single, continent-wide state organised along a federal system similar to that of the USA. (Nor is there much indication that this is the direction the project is heading towards any more, despite occasional statements to that effect from various European politicians, but that's yet another question entirely).

The major problem remains that there is precisely no agreement on terminology:

  • "The EU' is often used as shorthand for the Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers - all separate institutions - as well as all 25 EU member states (when they are in agreement), and even - scarily frequently - for non-EU bodies like the European Court of Human Rights.
  • "Europe" is also used interchangably with "the EU", despite not being the same thing.
  • "Eurealist" and "Eurosceptic" are largely interchangable, and generally mean anti-EU, despite their etymologies suggesting that they should mean something entirely different.
  • "Federal" means everything from the basic "recognising a central authority" to the loaded "dominated by a central authority".
  • "Sovereignty" is frequently mentioned, but rarely defined, and calls for its "return" are often aimed at Brussels alone while ignoring the loss of sovereignty entailed by our obligations to NATO, the UN, the World Bank and innumerable other international treaties.
  • "Integration" can be used both in the sense of harmonising existing systems to allow them to run in parallel or the sense of "gradual, ever-increasing domination by Brussels".
  • Even concepts such as "British culture" and "British law" are often used confusingly - frequently ignoring the rather different situations and experiences of Scotland.
Add to all that the lack of consistent application of standards (calls for "Democratic accountability" in particular seem to ignore many of the entirely undemocratic aspects of the British political system), and the entire thing gets very confusing.

Until we can get an agreement on the precise meanings of the terminology of the debate, honesty is - as I have pointed out many times before - impossible. This latest escapade simply proves it once more - an admission that the EU is "political" in its nature can easily be held up by those opposed to the EU as an admission that it is heading towards a superstate, when what is actually meant is something far less sinister. Because of this, such an admission simply cannot be made - it would be presenting anti-EU campaigners with an open goal, and be an horrendous PR move thanks entirely to the distortions and misunderstandings that would ensue. Simple honesty can no longer work without very careful media management to ensure that statements are taken to mean what they are intended to mean. And in the British climate, such media management is impossible.

Both sides are equally guilty in this, and have been at it for decades. It will be very hard to tackle this problem at so late a stage - and impossible unless both sides agree to sit down and agree not only to apply a consistent usage to all the various terms, but also to argue the pros and cons on an individual basis and on their merits.

Which, let's face it, is never going to happen - it's far easier to smear all anti-EU people as xenophobes and petty nationalists and all pro-EU people as federalists and traitors, and then whinge like a slapped child when the opposition uses the same tactics in return. While that's all very well and good, all that ends up happening is that regular people get ever more disillusioned with the entire political process as the debates get ever more infantile and confusing. Which is not helpful for either camp.

Rupert Murdoch wants you to work for him for free

Especially if you're a blogger, by the sounds of things.

Would you like to help shape The Times's election coverage? Do you want to write for Times Online during the campaign? If you are a reader of The Times or Times Online, we would like your help in two areas:

1. If you live in a battleground seat, we want to know how the parties are campaigning in your area. We want to see the leaflets that come through your front door and hear about any phone calls you receive or any other innovative, or irritating, techniques that the parties are using.

2. If you are a blogger or a diarist and live in a key battleground, Times Online would like to hear from you. You could become a featured online writer during the campaign.
Still, it might prove to be an interesting exercise, if they bother to stick with it. Not the sort of initiative I'd have expected from the Times, it must be admitted - strikes me more as a Guardian type idea. Nonetheless, for anyone interested in padding out their CV it might be worth a pop...

Either way, there's more here

Tuesday update: Via Martin Stabe, it seems that the BBC's Today Programme is after bloggers as well.

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