Saturday, February 25, 2006

Has Tony Blair been getting ideas from Russia?
"The social custom keeping communities in Russia together – krugovaia poruka, or 'joint responsibility' – has been used by the authorities as a means of control since Tsarism. In the Soviet period, krugovaia poruka became the terror of the group over the individual: ordinary people denounced each other out of suspicion and envy. Even today, krugovaia poruka remains deep inside the personality of most Russians. Many identify democracy and the rule of law with an insecure and troubled existence."
A somewhat relevant - and fascinating - article on how attempts to introduce concepts of human rights and constitutional reform can go wrong, and how the people can become disillusioned with them just as much as governments...

This. Time to get over her, people.

Friday, February 24, 2006

What the hell? Suspending an elected representative from office for four weeks for making a foolish but hardly earth-shattering (and certainly non anti-semitic) remark that happened to offend someone? Does this mean I can get Tony Blair and Charles Clarke suspended from office for offending me EVERY SINGLE BLOODY DAY with their illiberal attacks on pretty much everything that used to make this country a place I could be proud to live?

Update: More ponderings - Livingstone's been done for "bringing the office into disrepute", an entirely subjective judgement. This will have set precedents - as could his appeal - as this is one of the first major tests for the Adjudication Panel for England (which was only set up five years ago), designed to rule over local government officers. If the ruling is upheld it could open the door to hundreds of petty suits against local government officials nation-wide, purely on the basis of people pretending to have been offended by something they've said. A handy new weapon in the party political warfare arsenal...

Plus, as the precise constitutional basis of the APE (heh - "ape"...) remains rather unclear - it works much like a court of law and its members are directly appointed by the Lord Chancellor - its decisions could potentially be used as precedents for other cases in areas of law outside its own jurisdictional remit. Especially when combined with the current government attempts to legislate against incitement to religious hatred and glorifying terrorism, where perception is all and it doesn't matter for hell what the intent is/was.

People are stupid, part 4,567 - UK Polling Report:
"45% of Labour voters want Blair to go this year or next year"
Which means, of course, that 55% of Labour voters DON'T want him to go. Likewise, "67% of current Labour voters think [Gordon Brown] will be a good Prime Minister" - even though "51% think that “it will be pretty much ‘business as usual’"

In other words, they LIKE what Labour's doing. they couldn't care less about the erosion of civil liberties. Because civil liberties are not a vote-losing issue. It's the economy, stupid, and until that REALLY begins to crumble, Labour will remain safely in power. We're stuck with 'em.

The more I hear about these ID cards, the better they sound. The ID will control our impulses, the police (renamed the Ego) will pacify those of us with ID and do its best to please the government (renamed the Superego in honour of The Rt Hon Anthony Blair), which will keep us from doing anything it deems disruptive and/or dangerous.

Here endeth the cod psychology.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Magna Carta and Civil Liberties

A quickie to try and clear up a confusion I've seen on a few blogs around the place who seem to think that Magna Carta guarantees British (well, English) people certain freedoms:

The Magna Carta "rights" thing is a complete myth. It never granted anyone other than a few barons any liberties - the attempt to argue that it did began in the 17th century with Sir Edward Coke, and was expanded upon by the Parliamentarians to justify their entirely illegal revolt against the King. Even if it did grant any rights, hardly any of it remains in force.

In fact, there are not, nor ever have been, any guaranteed rights in this country. Not until we signed up to the UN, that is. The way the English constitution works (Scotland is rather different) ensures that nothing can possibly be guaranteed within the nation state itself - only external obligations can compel our government to abide by what many consider to be basic human rights obligations. There is not, nor ever has been, anything in English law that can secure civil liberties.

(Oh, and an additional problem? Legally speaking, any attempt to introduce a codified constitution granting inviolable legal rights to the people would itself be unconstitutional, and therefore illegal and easily repealed by any later government that wished to... The only way to ensure certain rights is to sign up to strict external obligations to force the national government to abide by set rules of conduct - one of the benefits we would have got had the now dead EU constitution been ratified and put into force.)

I'd missed this - a nice, quick overview of the current situation re: democracy in the EU, and a handy highlighting of yet another example of ill-informed and therefore misleading EU journalism. Sadly, though, much like the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, the EU's simply too dull for people to pay too much attention (and those that do are generally dismissed as nutters)...

Go read this. It would seem once again that Mr McKeating and myself are pondering along similar lines - with him covering a whole bunch of the potential flaws of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill in his usual entertaining style.

At some point soon I may get around to doing a lengthier take on the role of business interests in all this, which I've been pondering for a while... Unusually, if it happens it'll almost certainly be from a decidedly non-Marxian perspective, which may make a nice change from the usual "business is evil" crowd.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill - time to do something

Banality slips beneath the radar so much more easily than excitement. Call something "The Religious Hatred Bill", people sit up and take notice. Call it "Administrative" "Legislative" or "Regulatory" something or other, no one notices for hell, and you can slip all kinds of nonsense through. Why do you think the fictional Department in Yes, Minister was The Department for Administrative Affairs?

Anyway, the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is bloody dangerous, potentially far more so than any other piece of legislation currently before parliament. Yet because it sounds boring, no one cares. Most MPs haven't got a clue about it. So it's time to enlighten them.

Via EU-Serf (and the fact that we're agreeing on this should be some indication of just how dangerous the bill is) comes a very handy breakdown of the problems with the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, and a request that you contact your MP asap to ask them a few questions and get them thinking about the bloody thing, rather than merely ignoring it through boredom as most seem to be. Here's a few samples of possible questions you could ask when you contact your MP:

Why does the Bill give the power to create new law, including new criminal offences, to the Law Commissions, which are unelected quangos appointed by Ministers?

If the Law Commissions are supposed to be staffed by impartial technical experts, why are Ministers taking the power to amend the recommendations of the Law Commissions before they are fast-tracked into legislation?

If the Bill gives Ministers powers to charge fees by decree, is that not a charter to bring in unlimited stealth taxes?

As the Bill permits an order to be made by a Minister under the Bill provided its effect is “proportionate” to his “policy objective”, since when in our history as a democratic country has a Government Minister’s “policy objective” directly received the force of law?

If the Bill allows Ministers to “amend, repeal or replace legislation in any way that an Act might”, does this not give them an unlimited power to ignore a democratic Parliament and legislate by decree?
Most people think politics is boring. That's precisely why politicians get away with so damn much. Time to wake them up people - because this particular bill could do all MPs out of a job...

Update: Never thought I'd say this, but thank God for the Tories - it seems they're on the case.

Update 2: From the comments, a very handy, easy to understand (.pdf) briefing paper from lawyers at Clifford Chance, "Henry VIII Redux - The government's new law-making powers", just to prove it's not just bloggers who are concerned about this:
"The bill will permit the Government to... change any piece of secondary legislation... Secondary legislation implementing Law Commission proposals may, additionally, amend the common law. The Bill would also permit such secondary legislation to give Ministers, and other, powers to make legislation, not subject to the new procedure...

"The Minister may only make an Order under the Bill where he considers that the conditions set out in clause 3(2), 'where relevant, are satisfied'... The bill does not require the conditions are met, but rather that the Minister considers that they have been met, where relevant."
In other words, this Bill gives them the power to give themselves more powers as they see fit, and the only restriction placed upon them is their conscience. These are politicians we're talking about - they don't HAVE a conscience. Be afraid.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Why is it a controversy when the (unelected) heir to the throne writes low-profile letters expressing political opinons to ministers and MPs, but not when the (unelected) Metropolitan Police Commissioner stages press conferences expressing political opinions to the entire country?

Busy, so a quick heads-up: Electronic surveillance enters EU statute books -
"Europe’s justice ministers have given final approval to controversial rules forcing telephone operators and internet service providers to store data."
More later, if time. But it's worth noting that this legislation was originally introduced by our very own Tony Blair during the UK EU presidency. Cheers Tony, you maniacal fascist.

Political Philosophy thought(s) for the day

Some more past parallels, from Tom Paine:

1) (from 1776's Common Sense) "Ye that dare oppose not only tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the Old World is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart."

2) (from 1776's The American Crisis) "panics, in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact, they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginary apparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world."

3) (from 1795's Dissertation on First Principles of Government) "It is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit and control the power and impulse of party, and that says to all parties, thus far shalt thou go and no further. But in the absence of a constitution, men look entirely to party; and instead of principle governing party, party governs principle."

4) (from the same) "An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself."

5) (from 1793's The Age of Reason) "It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime."

Is Tony Blair our very own "secret traitor", willing to destroy our liberties faced with a perceived threat from abroad? Has he "corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind", or merely that of his party?

Those who forget the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them...

Notes from a small bedroom - a new blog that's well worth a look. And also brings a handy H.L.Mencken quote:
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and thus clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
I really must read some more Mencken. Anyone got any suggestions of especially good collections?

More lessons from the past

A lengthy pondering on Blair, Bagehot and the threats of our consitution from me over at The Sharpener, following this, this, and especially this. Go read and stuff.

Monday, February 20, 2006

David Irving is an idiot, not a criminal

I thoroughly disapprove of this. His kind of questioning of the Holocaust may be hurtful, it may be distasteful, it may be based on dubious evidence and on the utterly unhistorical discounting of thousands of eyewitness accounts, but someone needs to question the accepted version of history, even if only to be roundly debunked and ridiculed. Just as the late, great Conrad Russell was not sent to prison for challenging the received wisdom on the origins of the English Civil War, David Irving should not be sent to prison for challenging the received wisdom on the Third Reich. Nor should he be prosecuted for being a bad, failed historian - which is all he really is...

"It remains our view that these individuals represent a real risk to the national security of this country and should continue to be detained"

Hazel Blears, 20th October 2005.

"It is regrettable that any families with children have to be detained at all but it is sadly the actions of the adults in the family that make this necessary." Hazel Blears, 13th August 2003

Ms Blears, as well as being Minister of State for Crime, Security and Communities, is the constituency MP of Olive Mukarugwiza, a Rwandan asylum seeker who, after living in the UK for three years, without warning found her home raided by police at 6am last Tuesday morning. She and her three children were packed off to Yarls Wood detention centre pending their deportation. On Friday they were bundled onto a plane in such a distraught state that the pilot refused to fly.

Harry's Place has evidently received the same emails from the campaign to get her a decent review as me. More here and here.

This particular case appears to have received precisely no newspaper coverage. A google search for Olive comes up with precisely nothing. I can neither confirm nor deny the truth of this one. Nonetheless, a mother and her three children - the eldest of which apparently has offers from three universities as she prepares for her A-levels - hardly sound like a threat to national security. But in Labour's brave new world, asylum seekers are merely statistics - and the more they can refuse and deport to placate the anti-immigration crowd, the better.

Edited: It would appear Olive's surname was spelled wrong in the email I originally received. Now corrected. Still practically no Google presence though.

Public Service Announcement - May local elections

If you want to vote in the May local elections you only have three weeks to make sure you are registered, as the deadline is Monday 13th March. Application forms can be downloaded here - and at the same site you can enter your postcode to check whether you have any elections in your area.

It is well worth noting that as local elections traditionally have a very low turnout, they are an ideal time to have an impact. Want to give Blair and co a bloody nose? Get registered and show your displeasure in the only way they understand - by voting for somebody else and reducing their hold over the country.

Update: From A Logical Voice, potential marginals and other interesting electoral battlegrounds. Doubtless we'll end up with more detailed breakdowns over the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you live in any of these places, your vote could be significant on May 4th, so make sure you're registered:

Bexley, Bradford ,Brent, Bury, Calderdale, Camden, Croydon, Doncaster, Fulham, Hammersmith, Haringey, Havering, Hillingdon, Kirklees, Lambeth, Leeds, North Tyneside, Rochdale, Solihull, St. Helens

Political philosophy thought for the day

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Ch.III:

"he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life. For I have reason to conclude that he who would get me into his power without my consent would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for nobody can desire to have me in his absolute power unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against my right of freedom - i.e. make me a slave...

"let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose that he who would take away my liberty would not, when he had me in his power, take away everything else."
(A reminder, following recent and ongoing developments)

I for one will always trust a government that failed so abjectly in battling BSE and continiues to fail in fighting bovine TB when they tell us that there's no need to follow the French example of quarantining and vaccinating poultry in the face of the constant spread of H5N1 bird flu across Europe...

Update: As if by magic, Tony Blair appears and contradicts his own minister by saying farmers should start preparing to put their birds into quarantine... (And, irritatingly, the BBC have simply updated the earlier story, rather than creating a new page. I really wish they would stop doing that.)

Yaaaay! Sign me up for one of those biometric ID cards with my fingerprints and stuff. Nothing could ever go wrong!

So, that's £750,000 compensation due to fingerprints being misidentified (a handy precedent set). We're constantly told that these ID cards will have a 99.9% accuracy rate. The UK has a population of 60 million. 0.01% failure rate means 60,000 people misidentified. 60,000 x £750,000 = erm... £45 BILLION.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Britblog Roundup 53

Sound familiar? It's almost exactly the same nonsense John Reid came out with a couple of weeks ago, just before the footage of British troops beating up some Iraqis emerged.

Only this time he goes even more mental - we should be "slow to condemn our troops" because they are "increasingly constrained not just by international law and conventions, the standards we want to keep, but by media scrutiny, by videophones, by mobile phones, by satellite dishes". Eh? Mobile phones, videophones and satellite dishes? You what, John?

The delights of the British constitution

Read this passage from Locke's First Treatise of Government, and tell me there aren't any parallels. It's late and I'm a bit drunk, so I may well be reading too much into it. But the parallels are there:

"Since there have been a generation of men sprung up in the world that would flatter princes with an opinion that they have a Divine right to absolute power, let the laws by which they are constituted and are to govern, and the conditions under which they enter upon their authority be what they will, and their engagements to observe them never so well ratified by solemn oaths and promises, they have denied mankind a right to natural freedom, whereby they have not only, as much as in them lies, exposed all subjects to the utmost misery of tyranny and oppression, but have also so unsettled the titles and shaken the thrones of princes... as if they had designed to make war upon all government and subvert the very foundations of human society."
(John Locke - An Essay Concerning False Principles, Chapter I: Of Slavery and Natural Liberty)
This is an attack on Divine Right theory and absolute monarchy written in the wake of a Civil War that kicked off (in large part) over misuse of sovereign power, and designed to justify a military coup that was launched for the same reason. It is very much of its time.

Substitute "Divine Right" for "right by election" (the famous "democratic mandate"), and "absolute monarchy" for "the right to do what we want as long as we have a sufficient majority in parliament". It's not a perfect parallel, to be sure, but there are surely similarities.

The thing to remember is that in Britain there are still, even in the 21st century, no checks on the power of Parliament other than the right of the monarch to refuse the royal assent to any Act passed by the two Houses. This right to refuse royal assent, commonly called the Royal Veto, has not been used in nearly 300 years. As such, it effectively no longer exists.

The Royal Veto is, however, the ONLY check we currently have on the ability of any government with a sufficient majority to pass any law it likes. This is very easy to foget. Many deny it. But in terms of strict constitutional law, it remains entirely true.

Personally, I find this terrifying - especially after the events of the last week.

Without the check of the Royal Veto, Parliament - not the people - is sovereign. Which means there is no check on Parliament whatsoever. Parliament can alter any part of the constitution whenever it likes. If Parliament becomes complacent, if a government has a sufficient majority in Parliament, a government can do whatever it likes.

None of our freedoms are sacred. None are inviolable.

As long as the government has a sufficient majority, Parliament can pass any laws it likes - including a law which abolishes Parliament itself, abolishes elections, and sets up a dictatorship.
Hey, look... you know - what's more important? The right to hold elections and have a say in how the country is run, or the right not to be blown to pieces by EEEVIL TERRORISTS?
Under British constitutional law, the government has the right to abolish elections if it can pass legislation amending the law stating that elections need to be held. Under British constitutional law, were Tony Blair to get a bill through Parliament that abolished Parliament itself, we would have no longer have the right to elect our leaders or determine our laws, and no legal right to dispute the removal of this power..

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill - which proposes bypassing parliament and allowing ministers, who have not been elected to the offices they hold and some of whom have never been elected to any office whatsover (e.g. the Lord Chancellor or Lord Adonis), to amend legislation and bring in new laws as they see fit - is the first step down this path.

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