Tag Archives: UK

Are Human Rights a vote winner?

Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked off predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists and in the comments, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government.

Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite. For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:

And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.

If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. We want political parties to admit their mistakes and reverse their policies, don’t we? Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance.

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By the way, the Monarchy is still sexist

First things first: The idea of a monarchy is inherently inequitable. It institutionalises privilege and injects unelected, inherited power into the heart of our political system.

But at least its not sexist, right?!  Section 1 of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 finally eriadicated the preposterous rule that gave male children of the monarch priority over the female children (this blog demanded cognatic (equal) primogeniture back in 2006).  So we should be fit for purpose, yeah?

Wrong.  A crucial bit of sexism remains, and it is this:

  • When the reigning monarch is male, he is called ‘King’ and his consort is called ‘Queen’.
  • When the reigning monarch is female, she is called ‘Queen’ and her consort is called Prince.1

Why the discrepancy?  Well, because a ‘King’ is greater than a ‘Queen’!  There is obviously no practical reason for this inequality.  It is just that our culture is sexist.  The problem runs deep: Think of how a King is worth more than a Queen in card games.

My prescriptions:

  1. If we’re going to stick with a hereditary monarchy, then future male consorts of reigning Queens should be called ‘King consort’.
  2. You know how we change the official wording of things when its a Queen and not a King (for e.g. Queen’s Counsel; God Save the Queen)?  British people should make the same changes when it comes to card games.  ‘British Rules’ poker and bridge should see the four Queen cards trump the four King cards, when the monarch happens to be a woman.

1. In reverse chronological order:  Prince Philip is married to Queen Elizabeth II Prince Albert was married to Queen Victoria, and Prince George was married to Queen Anne.  Both Queen Marys were married to people who were reigning Kings, and Queen Elizabeth I never married.  Empress Matilda was never called Queen herself.

"A looming democratic deficit"?

The folk at the brilliant OurKingdom blog commissioned a piece from me on the next steps for Libel Reform.  The crucial issue:

During the Parliamentary debates, the Government flatly rejected proposals to extend the Derbyshire principle to private companies spending taxpayers money. British citizens are therefore confronted with a looming democratic deficit. As private companies take over the running of prisons, waste collection, school dinners, care homes, and large swathes of the NHS, the space to criticise them is squeezed. By leaving the Derbyshire principle to the courts to develop further, the Government have introduced an unwelcome ambiguity into our public discourse, especially at the local level. It will be left to citizens to closely monitor how the big subcontractors behave in this area. Any hint that these corporations are stifling public criticism through use of the libel law must be met with a public outcry.

Read the whole article, What next for libel reform?, on the OurKingdom blog.

Please stop calling George Osborne 'Gideon'

The Chancellor’s terrible parking gives me a chance to say something I’ve been meaning to get off my chest for a while.

I get so irritated with those on the Left who insist on calling George Osborne by his middle name, ‘Gideon’. 

In doing so, they seek to emphasise his upper-class background, which they believe will discredit him.

This is both a dog-whistle and an ad hominem and a piss-poor political tactic.

In the USA, Barack Obama is regularly called ‘Hussein’ (his middle-name) by his opponents.  This is a similarly immature attempt to discredit him.  The Left condemns that practice… and I don’t see how deploying the ‘Gideon’ moniker is any different.

Worse: the class card can be used in reverse. If the Left legitimises ad hominem attacks on the upper-class, it gives people like down-to-earth, working class Eric Pickles a sheen of credibility as they propose awful policies that hurt the poor.

Margaret “Grocer’s Daughter” Thatcher, and John “Son of a Music Hall performer” Major derived similar political cover from their backgrounds – a piece of political armour gifted to them by the class warriors of the left.

George Osborne’s callous and growth throttling policies would be no more or less harmful if his middle name was Robert, not Gideon. A moratorium on this pettiness, please.

Gideon

Gideon, Class Warrior

The Inconsistency of the #RoyalBaby Curmugeons

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http://twitter.com/robertsharp59/status/275632654727122944

The Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant, and my Twitter timeline and Facebook wall have immediately been filled with curmudgeons complaining that the issue of #Leveson and other important stories will get buried. I think this may be an over-reaction – there will be other news reported in the papers tomorrow.

Most of the comments in my timeline were meta – discussions about the discussion, not a discussion about the news itself. This is unsurprising because of course, there is no actual analysis that can be done on this kind of story: Kate is pregnant. The kid will be born about 7 months from now. They will one day be monarch, regardless of gender.

I have little patience for those complaining about the level of coverage. Britain is an immensely influential country, and a new head of state – one that could potentially reign for decades – has just been designated. We went nuts for discussion of the US Presidential election, and the French Presidential election. The opaque appointment of a new Chinese leader was also well documented. Why should the emergence of a new British Head of State be any less talked about?

The madness is not the level of coverage given over to this story. The madness is that British heads of state are still chosen by the hereditary method. If you are annoyed, irritated or angered by the news overload, but you’re not a republican, then you’re just being inconsistent.

Shifting Time and Calendar Reform

The clocks go back tonight, as the United Kingdom switches back to Greenwich Mean Time for the winter.

This human, cultural manipulation of time reminds me of the idea of the International Fixed Calendar. This is a thirteen month calendar, with each month having 28 days. This means that days and dates always match up (the 1st of the month is always a Monday, &ct). As well as making arrangements (or any date based task easier) the International Fixed Calendar makes rent, interest, mortgage, salary and other monthly payments consistent and therefore fairer.

13 times 28 equals 364, one day short of a solar year. To solve this problem, the calendar adds an extra day that sits outside the seven day week or the thirteen month system. Since 366 day leap years would still be required to keep the calendar in sync with the Earth’s orbit, every four years you would get not one but two extra-calendrical days.

Late last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University scored a bit of a media hit with their Hanke-Henry Calendar. They solved the 365 problem by saving up the extra days and the leap days, and then scheduling a leap weak every four or five years! I prefer the International Fixed Calendar however, because we like to compare seasonal and weather conditions year-on-year. It is important to be able to compare the same date over several years and know you are also comparing the same point in the Earth’s orbit too. Continue reading

Libel Reform is 190 Years Overdue

Happy Birthday to The Guardian, 190 years old today. In its regular archive feature, the paper presents Its first ever editorial, which features a demand for libel reform:

Nor is the career of the Editor of a Newspaper attended with moral responsibility alone, it is encompassed with dangers; dangers against which the best and purest intentions furnish a preservative. In the present state of the libel law, his duty to his country and himself will often be at variance. Circumstances may imperiously call for a prompt and fearless exposure of deliquency in high places. In the ardour of laudable indignation he may pass those “metes and bounds” which the discretion of the Attorney General assigns to the freedom of the press – he is not permitted either to prove the truth of his allegations, or to negative the averments of the charge against him. In short he is asked to defend himself, where the law (or at least the practice of the Courts) renders defence impossible – he is convicted, and banishment presents itself to his mind as the penalty of a second involuntary or even laudable transgression.

For ourselves, we are enemies to surrility and slander on either side, and though we will not compromise the right of making pointed animadversions on public questions, we hope to deliver them, as that even our political opponents shall admit the propriety of the spirit in which they are written.

Did lettered people really use the word animadversions in everyday discourse? (I promise to do so from now on.) Apart from the flowery nineteenth century language, these are sentiments that could be written today. In fact, a scrutiny committee is takings evidence in Parliament this week on the government’s draft defamation bill. I went to yesterday’s session, chaired by Lord Mahwinney, and the arguments put forward by the Libel Reform Campaign yesterday each find an analogous complaint in the Manchester Guardian’s editorial.

“Circumstances may imperiously call for a prompt and fearless exposure of delinquency” captures the need, still essential today, to firm up defences of public interest. “He is not permitted to prove the truth of his allegations” speaks to the long held complaint that truth is very often irrelevant in high-stakes libel cases (the draft bill has a very welcome clause to rectify this). The phrase about “banishment presents itself to his mind” pompously captures the terrible self-censorship that most publishers, journalists and bloggers routinely engage in when choosing to report on powerful people.

Even some of the critics of the current campaign find their words mirrored by the campaigners of 1821. Professors Alistair Mullis of UEA and Andrew Scott of The LSE also gave evidence to the scrutiny committee yesterday. Their claim is that the libel chill is purely a function of high costs. 190 years ago, The Manchester Guardian article rightly complained about “the practice of the courts”. The costly process by which libel cases are fought – always in the High Court, never in less expensive fora – is undoubtedly a major part of the problem… and has been for nearly two centuries!

I’m glad that the editorial does not neglect to mention a crucial message of the Libel Reform campaign – that reputation is important and responsible journalism must be encouraged. The Manchester Guardian writes this as “we are enemies to scurrility and slander”, which I like.

In one respect though, the short-sighted and unimaginative leader writers of 1821 failed miserably to predict future concerns, and that is with regards to protections for Internet Service Providers. Nowhere in that first editorial can I find an analogy for the “privatisation of censorship” that occurs when lawyers send takedown threats to ISPs hosting controversial content. Measures to protect ISPs from this kind of liability are also absent from the government’s draft bill – a curiously nineteenth century omission. I hope readers of Liberal Conspiracy will instinctively support the inclusion of such a clause into the defamation bill, ensuring that authors take responsibility for their content, not the distant ISPs that provide the server space. A good way to signal your support would be to write to your MP. The Libel Reform Campaign would be exceedingly beholden to those in our number that undertake to do so.

Two Types of Patriotism

Crowds assemble to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, 1st May 2011. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Crowds assemble to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, 1st May 2011. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Micah in Kansas City is uneasy about the celebrations surrounding the killing of Osama Bin Laden:

The backlash of ignorant commentary and opinion about the death of Bin Laden on Twitter tonight was disheartening, and I’m so very glad I deleted my Facebook so I didn’t have to gaze upon the even more ignorant statuses of “patriots” glad about the death of another human being.

For me, it was impossible not to make the mental link between the celebrations in America, and the recent flag-waving down on The Mall.  Both events have been obvious moments of unity for the respective countries.  Both events mark symbolic endings to a particular period of national history.  In the British case, the confusion of Princess Diana’s marriage, the sorrow of her death, and perhaps the end of a particular type of monarchy.  In the American case, it is the ending of something much more significant (what Emily Maitliss on the BBC just called a “psychological watershed”), a decade of fear, insularity and a sense of revenge not yet wrought.

Moreover, the Royal Wedding and Osama’s death both signal much more optimistic new chapters.  A pared down, modern and middle-class Monarchy for us.  And for the Americans, a reassertion of their primacy in matters military.

I wonder whether these events can sustain this symbolism.  Wills and Kate are but two individuals getting hitched in a country that has massive economic problems and not a few social and cultural challenges ahead of it.  And in the American case, the death of a figurehead will not in itself stop the Al Q’aeda threat, nor reverse its economic decline relative to the Asian super-powers.  Time will tell whether these outpourings of national confidence, on both sides of ‘the pond’, mark a new period of success or a patriotic dead-cat bounce.

Regardless of the final significance, Micah’s post highlights an crucial difference between the two groups of cheering crowds: On The Mall in London, the flag-wavers were celebrating life;  On The Mall in Washington, they were cheering a death.  I wonder how this essential difference between these two moments of patriotic punctuation will affect the two nations in years to come?

 

Some Words on Primogeniture

Primogentiture is the right of the first born to inherit titles, estates and thrones. At present the UK has a form of male primogeniture, which sets the Duke of York and Prince Edward above the older Princess Anne in the line of succession. In the 21st Century, this is absurd. With the #RoyalWedding suggesting the possibility of new heirs being born soon, there are plans afoot to legislate for a more equal form of primogeniture.

Keith Vaz MP is quoted in a BBC report:

I hope that they will give their full support to my bill which is currently before Parliament.

If they do so we can resolve this matter before any child of Prince William and Kate Middleton is born, not afterwards. The clock is ticking. We need to act fast.

Ignoring the distasteful idea that legislation has to race against one woman’s fertility, this is still not quite right. The legislation will only become awkward after a second child is born to Prince William and Princess Catherine. When their first kid is born, he or she will become 3rd and directly in line to the throne (bumping Prince Harry off the podium and, probably, into drunken obscurity). Only when a second child is born, and only if that second child is a boy and the older child is a girl, will there be any awkwardness. Assuming Wills and Kate do want kids, and assuming they want more than one kid, and further assuming this is biologically possible (because for some women it is sadly not) then it’s a 25% chance, and will likely take at least half a decade to occur.

So there is no urgency to this, just a bizarre set of sensibilities to spare the feelings of Royal toddlers who probably wouldn’t care anyway. Altering the law right now would mean demoting Princes Andrew and Edward and their offspring in favour of Princess Anne and her issue, and we don’t seem to worry about that.

Interestingly, had full cogniatic primogeniture prevailed, Queen Victoria – our longest serving and one of our greatest monarchs – would not have ascended to the throne. It would instead of passed to the family of Princess Caroline, a sister of George IV and William IV who was older than Victoria’s father, Edward. And since our current Queen is a direct descendant of Victoria, she would not have reigned either! This is doubly true, because Queen Victoria’s oldest child was a daughter (also named Victoria) who died in 1888. Had full primogeniture been law by the time Victoria died in 1901, the throne would have passed to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Great War would probably have been avoided.

On the other hand, that other great queen, Elizabeth I, would have ascended to the throne at exactly the same time, on the death of her sister Mary. However, since Catholic Mary would have have had an extra six years on the throne (with the sickly Edward VI being passed over) she may have maneuvered to exclude her Protestant sister from the succession.

In the last century however, Royal succession has been indifferent to gender. The eldest children of all the monarchs since 1901 were male, except for George VI who had only daughters, so questions of gender primacy never arose. Had a more equitable law of succession been passed when (say) women’s suffrage was introduced in 1918, there would have been absolutely no difference in the Royal lineage.

Its not an idle point about Women’s Suffrage. I would say that the argument over women’s equality was settled when they won the right to vote, so legislation on women having equal right to the Throne is at least 93 years overdue! I find it amazing that anyone in Britain or the Commonwealth needs to think about this. When Nick Clegg says that the issue still requires “careful thought” he is being utterly disingenuous… and I really don’t understand why.

The cowardly fudge behind the rhetoric of Control Orders

I was at the Nick Clegg speech earlier today. He took aim at Labour’s pretty poor record on civil liberties, suggesting that the previous governments were more systematic and less casual than prominent ex-Ministers would have us believe. (Full text of the speech is here).

Although there were some fine words on Libel Reform and some interesting proposals on Freedom of Information, most of the discussion in the speech itself, and in questions afterwards, was on control orders and curfews. Clegg refused to outline how these might change, but did say that those who want to see them abolished completely “will be disappointed”.

There was one phrase that Clegg used which is particularly grating on the ears. This was when he said that there were people who ‘we know’ are planning atrocities, but we do not have the evidence to convict them. It stood out, because David Blunket had used precisely the same formulation during his pre-emptive retort on The Today Programme this morning, and I am sure the current and previous Home Secretaries have taken a similar line.

This line of argument sounds tough, plausible and savvy. The speaker gets to burnish his or her credentials as a realist. However, it is a stance that rests on very shaky moral ground. Control orders are a form of pre-emptive detention, and the argument which justifies them is exactly the same as those used by authoritarian governments around the world, when they detain their political opponents.

Moreover, it is a rude and obvious short-circuit of the very basic legal principles. If a Minister ‘knows’ that someone is a danger, then they should be charged and convicted. If there is not enough evidence to convict, then neither politicians, the police nor the general public get to use the word ‘know’ in their rhetoric. There simply is not the epistemological certainty for that kind of claim, especially not in the context of political arguments. A control order is an extreme form of accusation, and Deputy Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries must not be allowed to make such ‘accusations’ and leave them hanging.

As the Home Secretary conducts her review of control orders in the coming months, look out for examples of this rhetoric, “we know, but we cannot convict.” It is a half-formed argument, a question not an answer. It is a cowardly fudge for those who do not want to make the tough decision: do we let these suspects go, or do we allow phone-tapping evidence to be admissable in court? This is the issue at stake, and the phenomenon of control orders is simply a clever device for punting the decision. If Nick Clegg is really serious about restoring civil liberties to British citizens, then he and his Prime Minister need to stop using bad rhetoric, and start making tough choices.