Abolish Seditious Libel

English PEN (my new employers, for those who haven’t been paying attention) have just published a letter in The Times, backing an ammendment to Coroners & Justic Bill by the the Liberal Democrat Evan Harris:

On Monday Parliament will have a unique opportunity to repeal the arcane and antiquated offences of seditious libel and criminal defamation. These two crimes date from an era when governments preferred to lock up their critics than to engage them in debate, and are incompatible with the universal right to freedom of expression. Their repeal is long overdue, and will send a powerful signal to states around the world which routinely use charges of sedition and criminal defamation to imprison their critics and silence dissent.

There’s more at the Times Online

Looking Tragedy in the Eyes

At the Convention last week, the magnificent array of speakers did their job of giving us some strong and pithy arguments against the encroachments on our shared civil liberties. Memorable rhetoric is important, because the shifting of public opinion is not shifted by one speech by Philip Pullman, (however lyrical) but by a hundred thousand discussions in homes and offices, and more than a few more opinion columns and TV shows in the coming years. The memorable, confident arguments will be remembered and repeated, and they will persuade.

However, while there was much pride expressed in taking the side of the underdog, its seems that when it comes to admitting the full implications of our values, we do not always sound so confident. One issue I did not hear raised was how to address the possibility that specific crimes may be committed, when some of the state’s major incursions into our liberty are rolled back. It is crucial that those of us who push for a tempering of databases and surveillance own these possibilities and embrace them.

Its a difficult argument to broach, because almost all of the debate centres around the idea that all the government’s new legal and security measures are actually ineffective: we argue that ID cards wouldn’t have stopped 7/7, say; or that Torture and rendition leads to useless intelligence.

Unfortunately, although the warnings raised by the authoritarians are usually phantoms, sometimes they are based on a kind of truth. A stop-and-search policy that alienates black and Asian youths might also reduce crime; a comprehensive DNA database might actually speed up the detection of a murder. Keep the entire Muslim population under 24 hour surveillance, and sooner or later you will stumble accross a disgruntled Islamist militant, ready for marytrdom.

So when I say that the civil liberties lobby must “own” these possiblities, I mean that we should admit that a more liberal approach in some areas might mean that yes, there will be another Mohammed Siddique Khan, another 7/7; that, yes, there will be another Ian Huntley, and another hollyandjessica. Only when these horrible possibilities are admitted, can we truly begin to explain that the “mythical state of absolute security” (as Dominic Grieve put it) is unachievable as well as undesirable, and so win the argument on our own terms, not those of the authoritarians and the populists.

Ultimately, we need to be prepared to defend of this political philosophy in the wake of a terrible atrocity, because that is when it will be most under threat. Just as just as Sir Ian Blair and Cressida Dick looked into the eyes of the de Menezes family (or perhaps they never did) when the inevitable outcome of their shoot-to-kill policy was realised at Stockwell, at some point we may have to look into the eyes of other widows, orphans or traumatised parents. We will have to make an abstract political argument in the face of a very practical and real tradgey. This will not be as easy as standing in a room full of supporters and affirming “freedom”.

I’ve been highly equivocal above. “Specific crimes may be committed”, I said. They are by no means certain, and can be avoided. Our arguments for civil liberties become more effective if we can also provide alternative suggestions for improving security. Two of the breakout sessions I attended at the convention, The Left and Liberty and the left, and Xenophobia both made attempts at this, putting forward policies that nip crimminal behaviour in the bud, before it becomes something that only draconian laws can combat.

The question is, can such policies be enacted soon enough to prevent another outrage? Unlikely, I’m afraid, which means there are some extremely difficult arguments ahead. Those who have the courage to make them will need our support.

Petition for Visiting Artists

Here’s a petition co-ordinated by the Manifesto Club, regarding the impractical restrictions placed on visiting artists invited to perform in the UK.

The Home Office recently introduced new restrictions on international artists and academics visiting the UK for talks, temporary exhibitions, concerts or artists’ residencies. Visitors now have to submit to a series of arduous and expensive proceedures to get their visa, and then more bureaucratic controls when they are in the UK. Already a series of concerts and residencies have been cancelled.

In addition to making UK cultural life a little more miserable, these measures also serve to reduce our “soft power” abroad. I am reminded of the time when Thomas Mapfumo, the Zimbabwean singer, was denied the chance to perform at WOMAD, for similar immigration related problems.

Think local, act local?

Philip Blond’s interesting cover essay for this month’s Prospect, ‘Rise of the Red Tories’, advocates a new form of Conservatism for David Cameron, centred around the Tories’ new thinking on social issues (I’m going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer says Cameron). Blond says the consensus that has emerged in British Politics – socially liberal-left, economically liberal-right – has failed on both fronts. The vice-versa, which would be a social conservatism alongside a leftist economy, seems a rather chilling prospect to my mind, but Blond thinks that an alternative could be to push through a full-blooded new localism which works to empower communities:

[Cameron] could start with four task: re-localising our banking system, developing local capital, helping normal people gain new assets and breaking up big business monopolies.

I suppose the emphasis on market forces (albeit at the local level) makes this a nominally right-wing policy, but with an emphasis on local, community ownership and assets, its not immediately clear to me why these ideas couldn’t be labelled left wing instead (indeed, I assume that confusion is why the article is illustrated with a graphic of Thatcher-as-Che). Yes, Conventional Wisdom would have it that a Labour Party under the Authoritarian Gordon Brown would not adopt such policies. But on the other hand, these ideas seem to be precisely the sort of wings that Hazel Blears’ Community Empowerment agenda requires, to get it off the pages of think-tank reports, and into actual communities.

Meanwhile, The Economist reports on ‘For-profit activism’, that is, harnessing the power of social networking to build-up buying power, to bend markets in favour of socially acceptable or environmentally friendly businesses.

Residents of San Francisco have been signing up enthusiastically for a new green-energy campaign called 1BOG. Short for “one block off the grid”, it aims to convince homeowners to switch to solar energy one block at a time, by organising them into buying clubs. Members get a discount on solar panels, and typically try to get their neighbours to sign up too. The city has also seen several recent examples of Carrotmobs—crowds of activists who buy everything in the winning shop in a contest between retailers to be the greenest.

As the article notes, we’ve seen these sorts of enterprises before, from the Body Shop, to Bono’s RED iPods, to Fair Trade Labelling, to the expensive soaps and hemp shirts you find in charity catalogues. Only this time, its local.

However, I would note a fundamental difference. On the national level, the kind of eco-friendly, ethical capitalism has found a niche within the retail economy. It has become successful, and crucially, normalised. On the other hand, the Carrotmobs and 1BOG seem to be one-off gimmicks. Indeed, the latter only works because a large company subsidises it as part of a marketing campaign. Its almost as if those people who are actually spending the money to make this work are participating in a leisure activity, rather than an everyday participation in a market that could sustain the local economy. We won’t be able to herald the coming of a ‘new localism’ until this sort of thing can arise and sustain itself without being shepherded by a well-meaning entrepreneur, or subsidised as part of a pilot scheme. Its not clear from these examples that this is possible.

Sentamu and the moral leadership of Anglicanism

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu gave a speech to the Smith Institute last week, ‘Regaining a Big Vision for Britain’, as part of their ‘Reinvigourating Communities’ lecture series. Its available to view via Policy Review TV:

He outlines the Big Vision of the Beveridge Report, and the influence of William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury of the time, in the development of the Welfare State. The Big Vision, Sentamu argues, was built on a distinctly Christian ethic and conception of humanity. Now we need a new vision, which leaders must articulate, so that we can all once again pull together to realise the social and economic changes required to mend our fractured society.

Archbishop Sentamu clearly believes that the Church of England has a role to play in articulating, and providing moral leadership, on this new Big Vision for Britain. But I see some pitfalls along the way. First, he acknowledges that communities and families are the blocks around which a society should be built. But the Church’s conception of these building blocks is very traditional: Communities built around a parish, a place of worship, or at least a shared location; and families in the hetrosexual, nuclear sense. It comes into friction with the non-traditional versions of these same building blocks: communities built online, say, or homosexual couples. Its not clear to me how Anglicanism can claim particular expertise in building these new groups into a grand coalition that will move us forward.

The Archbishop also repeats his analysis of how the policy of multiculturalism went too far in favour of minority cultures, at the expense of any respect for the idea of Britishness (this is something I have taken issue with him before). He asserts that if we want integration, there must be a strong, broad, primary culture available to integrate with! This is fine, but I do wish that the Church of England would apply this insight when managing its own multicultural issues, as found within the world-wide Anglican Communion. The British approach is supposed to be a core principle of the Communion, yet many of its constituent Churches have, in recent years, seemed to reject that approach. If the Church of England cannot provide a common moral vision for the world-wide Anglican Community, why should we suppose it would be any better at providing one for 21st Century Britain, diverse, modern and glorious?

Meanwhile…

… over at the Secular Right blog, Heather MacDonald writes on the phenomenon of “Drive-Thru Religion”, and how the rise of secularism does not seem to have resulted in a country-wide a descent into Sodom and Gomorrah:

Only a quarter of Americans attend church weekly. Yet moral chaos has not broken out; society has grown more prosperous as secularism expands. Empathy with others, an awareness of the necessity of the Golden Rule, survive the radical transformation of religious belief, it turns out. Perhaps because a moral sense is the foundation, not the result, of religious ethics.

(Via teh Dish). Applied to the British case, perhaps the values of the Anglican Church have arisen due to the values of British culture, and not vice-versa. Given that the Church of England grew out of the reformation, and the freedom of non-conformism was a hard fought for political fight, that analysis seems more accurate to me. Its not a binary argument of course, but it seems to me that Archbishop Sentamu is on uneven ground if he is claiming the great social achievements of the past century to be a product of the Anglican approach, even if William Temple did have an hand in the Beveridge Report.

The Convention on Modern Liberty

Writing in the Observer, Henry Porter advertises the convention, to be held on 28th February at various locations throughout the United Kingdom.

But this is no awayday for MPs, because in some sense the convention is a challenge to a parliament. For a brief moment, we will be airing the issues that haven’t been heard in the Commons this past decade, because Labour has all but anaesthetised the business of the chamber to push through its laws.

The website is now tested and live at www.modernliberty.net.  Please tell your friends, spread the word, and buy a ticket.  That other site of mine, LiberalConspiracy, is a supporter too.

Femafication

Here’s an interesting neologism from Paul Krugman, yesterday’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics:

I also wonder how much the Femafication of government under President Bush contributed to Mr. Paulson’s fumble. All across the executive branch, knowledgeable professionals have been driven out; there may not have been anyone left at Treasury with the stature and background to tell Mr. Paulson that he wasn’t making sense.

That’s been the problem with the Bush Administration all along: bluster and ego masquerading as strong leadership. It really, really matters, and it seems it matters more than a folksy, “man I can relate to” charm.

Incredibly, I’ve been chastised for writing too much about the USA and nothing about the UK. Given the financial crisis, this is indeed an oversight. I guess the cultural implications of the US Presidential election campaign are easier to engage with than the technicalities of the financial crisis that Brown and Darling are currently wrestling with.  You wouldn’t think it from the quote I’ve picked above, but Krugman’s article is principally in praise of the British handling of the crisis. Could this be the start of an unprecedented political comeback for Gordon Brown?

A Tale of Two Conferences

There’s no free wifi here in Birmingham.  Clearly the Tories expect to pay privately for that kind of public service, whereas last week at the Labour Conference in Manchester, the connectivity was subsidized.

Also missing is the air of triumphalism that I expected would greet us on arrival.  Instead there is a real sense of caution.  Steady as she goes, show some humility, master the brief… and wait for Labour to implode.

I experienced a couple of Down the Rabbit Hole moments at the Labour Conference last week.  The first was on Monday morning at the Public Sector 2.0 fringe event, which was broadcast into Second Life.  My avatar watched the screen, which depicted a room in which I was sitting, looking at my laptop.

Public Sector 2.0
Public Sector 2.0

The second moment was when I spotted the Prime Minister and his wife coming out of the lift, on their way to deliver their eagerly awaited speeches (I half expected them, as I had almost bumped into them coming out of a lift earlier that afternoon).  They disappeared out the front entrance… and immediately appeared on the screens that had been set up in the foyer.  In this era of mass communication, the barriers between the screen and real life are sometimes very blurred.

The Prime Minister in the foyer, and the screen, and someone's head
The Prime Minister in the foyer, and the screen, and someone's head

The speech itself did what it what supposed to do, which was bouy the Party Faithful and fight off a leadership challenge. But one week later, and the positive feelings fade. Danny Finkelstein is right: Labour thinks the voters are wrong, or misguided, or don’t realise what the Party has done for the Country. His advice:

It started with a simple proposition – it wasn’t enough for the party to understand that voters had lost faith in us. We had to do something far harder. We had to accept deep within us that this loss of faith was justified.

When I read something like Justin McKeating’s shopping list of Labour’s failures, panderings and hypocrisy, its difficult to disagree with the proposition that Labour are out of touch.  Perhaps the current economic crisis will draw them back to reality – in this case, the populist, protectionist approach doesn’t quite seem so vile, although some libertarian bloggers may disagree.

Against the Windfall Tax

Like Conor at the Liberal Conspiracy, I can’t really get behind this clamour for a windfall tax on oil companies. I would love to have a dig at Big Oil, but something grates.

Its not that I am like Tim Worstall, who has barrels of faith in the market to sort the problem out fairly. Oil extraction and distribution is a sort of cartel, not a free market. In any case, such a market takes time (maybe measured in decades or centuries) to do its ‘thing’, and in the meantime it is probable that excess profits will accumulate while everyone else is suffering from a recession.

No, my problem is that arguing for a windfall tax is surely another way of saying that you want to change the rules retrospectively.

Economists often argue that to change the rules, and to impose a windfall tax, simply breeds uncertainty in the market, and cause the oil companies to under-invest. Its an irritating argument against taxation, because it has an air of a threat about it: “don’t tax us, or we will mess up your economy”. In the case of a windfall tax, which everyone (even the oil companies) assumes will be a very rare occurrence, it is less believable than (say) the case of top-rate tax-payers. So I can see how the campaigners might discount this economic argument.

But leaving aside the economic risks that a windfall tax entails, surely changing the rules is simply wrong wrong wrong, no further discussion required? Imposing some kind of law (in this case, a tax law) retrospectively is the stuff of wild-eyed dictatorships, surely. Windfall taxes are short-cuts. An easy, lazy solution to a complex situation.

Play by the rules… and if you feel you must change the rules, do so only at the start of the game. If we percieve a problem with the way our country operates, its fine to legislate so that it doesn’t happen in the following tax year. Nationalise the oil companies if we must, or tax them at 99%. Whatever. Only this: we must to legislate for the future, not the past.

There’s a familiar saying, which goes something like “you can judge a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable”. Well, an alternative might be that we should judge ourselves by how we treat our most despised. The oil giants are certainly some of the most resented institutions in the country, but to subject them to anything other than the rule-of-law is not, I would suggest, cricket. Compass should leave the oil companies with this year’s profits, and get busy lobbying for a law that would redistribute future profits. That’s the right way a democracy should approach this problem.

Update 3rd September

The only counter argument that has piqued my interest has been that a large portion of the oil companies profits have arisen because of preferences in the system of allocating carbon credits via the European Emmissions Trading Scheme. However, while this is a definite argument for going after excess profits, I’m not sure it justifies doing so retrospectively, as a windfall tax would.

Pushing the Envelope

Pharmaceutical Chemists, by appointment to her majesty and to HRH the Princess of Wales, At their dispensing establishment, 177 Regent Street

Sifting through my late Grandmother’s scrap-books, I found this set of Pharmaceutical envelopes from the Victorian/Edwardian era. They were collected by her uncle (so that’s my Great-great Uncle) Thomas Lewis, who was a Chemist in Pembrokeshire, Edinburgh, and London.

Walker & Son, Member and Associate of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

The two things I enjoy about these designs are the innocent and polite text, and the use of typography. One would think that employing several different typefaces would look odd and discordant, but the combination of stencil, gothic, serif and sans-serif faces somehow seems to work. I’m reminded of the illustrator Kevin Cornell’s work, which is unsurprising really – He has an obvious affinity with this era.
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