Build a Better Baggie

Further to last month’s argument about the wisdom of legalising pot, here’s a competition to design packaging for when it happens:  Build a Better Baggie.

Design by The Heads of State

Via the Daily Dish, perennial advocate of state-led legalisation in the US.

I recall an urban myth I once heard, which was that Marlborough Cigarettes have the trademark “Marleys” pre-registered for the eventual legalisation of pot.  If I ever need to fill an unforgiving minute, I may create a quick mock-up of what such a pack would look like.

Previously: Arguments on Fair Trade Weed; The Alcoholic Elephant in the Smoking Room; and on Liberalisation and Legalisation.

Me, Quoted

I have been quoted in a couple of articles recently, both relating to free speech issues in the UK.

First, I was interviewed by The Booksller magazine, about the government’s proposed law on Criminal Memoirs:

Robert Sharp, campaign manager for English PEN, said publishers still had time to intervene, as the law would not be voted on until after the summer recess. “We have time to play for,” he said. “We would advise that people concerned about this should lobby the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, or Maria Eagle MP, to revist the bill, to run wider consultation, and come up with more clearly defined, narrower proposals.”

He also warned of “mission creep” arising. “You [could] have a law supposedly about mad gangsters boasting about how they stabbed someone, suddenly being used against someone writing about their harrowing journey through the criminal justice system.”

PEN will be refining these arguments for a campaign in the autumn.

I was also interviewed on the subject of UK libel laws by De Nieuwe Reporter, a Dutch magazine.  Here’s the money quote (literally):

‘Zelfs als ze zeker weten dat ze geen fouten hebben gemaakt, dan nog worden kranten en uitgeverijen gecensureerd door hun verzekeringsmaatschappijen omdat de financiële risico’s te groot zijn’, zegt Robert Sharp. ‘Het stelt rijke mensen in staat om een spelletje ‘High Stakes Poker’ te spelen, waarbij degene met het meeste geld uiteindelijk altijd wint.’

The article is in Dutch, but Google gives an English approximation.

Liberalism and Legalisation

Last weekend, I had an interesting and surprising discussion with some medical students, on the legalisation of cannabis.

Since they were students, I sort of assumed that they would be in favour of legalisation; and that the hypocrisy in the differing laws on alcohol and cannabis would be self-evident. Not so! Instead, they were almost unanimously in favour of prohibition.

Their objections to legalisation were based on their clinical experience of patients with cannabis-induced psychosis. De-criminalising cannabis would endorse and encourage cannabis use, increasing such mental illness. When I responded with a standard liberal argument on personal responsibility, they made the point that most people were not responsible. Amusingly, they pointed to the vast array of empty bottles on the table, explaining that even they were knowingly binge drinking, despite being probably the most educated group of people in the perils of substance abuse.  What hope for everyone else?

All I could do was remind them that all of the psychotic episodes they will have witnessed would have been as a result of illegal cannabis use. They would not have seen comparative data for legalised, regulated inhalation. Could it be that perhaps regulated drugs were safer?

The debate was a timely reminder that political discourse amongst the general population is very different to the extremely liberal bubble in which I work. Out there in the real world, people are much less libertarian, more authoritarian, and for good honest reasons too. Amongst that group of med-school friends, the perception persists that criminalising something is the natural and appropriate response when confronted with something bad.  The liberal case is often woolly, idealistic and missing crucial pieces.

So, what I should have asserted:   Prohibition is only appropriate for those activities that harm others, and not for self-harming acts.  We could then have had a discussion about whether smoking and drinking harms others or not, where a much more fruitful and divergent discussion is to be had (in this respect, I guess this post serves to shut the barn door, two days after the horse bolted).

What is so often missing from the liberal argument, is the acceptance, even the embracing, of the bad things that happen in an extremely liberal society.  I have twice before made that point here, when discussing ID cards and other civil liberties.  At the Convention on Modern Liberty, Dominic Grieve spoke of the “mythological state of absolute security.”  Perhaps we need to speak of a mythological state of absolute health too, and admit that the consequence of decriminalisation will be an uptick in cannabis use, and an associated increase in the risk of health issues… but that we should do it anyway.  The benefits to society would be greater, and we can work out regulatory ways to reduce that risk.

Photo by Ace. No drugs were used in the production of this picture.
Drugs can help you see the world differently.
Photo by Ace. No drugs were used in the production of this picture.

Police, Camera, Action

David at Minority Report offers some words of warning, regarding the slow trickle of citizen generated footage of alleged brutality at the G20 protests earlier this month:

Reconstructing events by using any number of restricted viewpoints is no replacement for vital missing facts. If I present you with a black box that contains a photo I made of a scene, I’ll happily let you make as many pin holes as you like – you will still struggle to make out whats going on. Especially if I choose the image.

Different circumstances, but I felt this way after Saddam Hussein was executed.  There is a real danger in allowing snippets of grainy amateur footage to act as the definitive account of an event.  The result in this case has been yet another trial by media, only this time the police seem to be on the receiving end.  In reality, we have no way of knowing precisely what killed Ian Tomlinson, and the account of the Nicky Fisher assault makes me uneasy (although admittedly this feeling is entirely based on her sightly spaced-out media interviews).

Was it inevitable that the police would lose this PR war?  Or is that some kind of optical illusion brought about by 20:20 hindsight?  My feeling is that these stories, which trickle out over a few days, played to our preconceptions, feeding into an easily understood narrative.  Clearly, the public have lost trust in the police.

This is a desperately dangerous state of affairs, of course.  However, I think the vilification that the police now receive is a delayed punishment for earlier and more egregious clusterfucks.  Despite the fact that no-one in authority was punished for the Jean-Charles De Menezes killing, it is not unreasonable to draw a line between that incident, and the current debate.  Although neither Sir Ian Blair or Cressida Dick (or for that matter Tony Blair or his Home Secretary Charles Clarke) lost their jobs over the incident, the security services certainly lost credibility as a result.  They were ‘punished’ in the sense that they lost the public’s trust, a vital form of political capital.

There should be a bittersweet satisfaction to this: we’ve learnt that institutions simply cannot maladministrate, or violate our civil liberties, with total impunity.  We’ve learnt how to ‘police the police’, and some thuggish elements will be brought to prosecution through evidence collected by citizen photographer.  However, its also true that the men and women currently tasked with policing our capital city were not the ones who ordered a policy of violence upon us.  Those people who made such decisions still walk free, and unaccountable.  This latest success for citizen journalism is a Pyrrhic victory.
Continue reading “Police, Camera, Action”

Filming the Police, Filming Us

Riot Police at the G20 Protests, London, 1st April 2009
Riot Police at the G20 Protests, London, 1st April 2009. Photo by PublicCCTV.

At the CentreRight blog (via LibCon), Graeme Archer has posted some ideas for reform of the police in light of the appalling Ian Tomlinson incident.

He begins

The police, particularly in London, appear to have forgotten that they police only with our consent. They are not the armed wing of the state. Some reforms are therefore long overdue

Of the suggestions he lists, I have mixed feelings about this pair:

  • Just as the storage of DNA from wholly innocent citizens is an outrage, so is the routine video-ing of members of the public by police officers. This must stop.
  • In contrast, members of the public must never be prevented from recording the activities of police officers.

I recall a point made by the former pedant Cleanthes, commenting on my Notes for Michael, who cited Robert Peel’s principles for policing:

An agent of the state???? That, Robert, in one succint phrase is the most daming indictment of the damage that has been done to the ethos of the Police over the last few decades.

Read Peel’s Principles here. Especially no.7:

Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

Libertarian Ian Parker-Joseph made a similar point in the comments to the CentreRight post.

On the issue of filming, it seems to me we can’t have it both ways. If the police are indeed simply citizens in uniform, then they surely have the same rights to film people in public, as the rest of the citizenry? If we are allowed to film them, surely they should be allowed to film us, no? Placing a different set of restrictions on the police on this issue would violate Peel’s principle.

And before anyone brings up CCTV, Cleanthes and I have already discussed the difference between automated and eyeball policing at The Select Society.

Cycle Mounted Police at the National Theatre.  CC Licence.
Cycle Mounted Police at the National Theatre.

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.

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  Please tell your friends, spread the word, and buy a ticket.  That other site of mine, LiberalConspiracy, is a supporter too.

On Trolls, Liberty, Debate and Damian Green

There’s a recently concluded debate over at the Liberal Conspiracy about ‘feeding the trolls’, that is, engaging with commenters on the blog who are just there to provoke an argument. I think there is a distinction between proper trolls, who are actively seeking to waste their own time in order to waste others’, and other people who simply have a wildly differing worldview. In the case of the former, it is rarely worth engaging. But in the case of the latter, debate can sometimes be helpful. It all depends on what kind of conversation you want to have, and on the Liberal Conspiracy, it is often impossible to talk about something at the level of detail you desire, if you are arguing first principles with someone else (be it a troll, or bona fide member of the seething classes).

Sometimes, I wonder if the mainstream media aren’t trolling. Today I spotted this headline from the Daily Mail, and feel confident that it has been written to waste my time.

Human Rights: Straw To Get Tough

Exclusive – Minister tells Mail how he’ll reform ‘Villiain’s Charter

Its not that I do not disagree with the idea of labelling the Human Right’s Act a “villiain’s charter”.  Its just that attempting to engage with it – especially on a blog – is a bit pointless. Its not as if they are making some kind of technical or categorical error that a plucky blogger might tease out and add to the debate. This article is speaking a genuinely different language. I have been silent on the ‘Baby P’ issue, because the debate was of this highly toxic, divisive type. Others gamely engaged with the trolls, so to speak, but there comes a point where its down to someone with a little more profile that bloggers to take up the political fight. This is why people often end up criticising political allies, for relatively trivial reasons, apparently missing the wood for the trees. Its not that we’ve lost our moral compass, just that we’re angry that other people are not speaking up for us in the places that matter.

As to the substance of the article, I’ll merely note again that it is the hated and the vulnerable who have their Human Rights violated first. The Declaration of Human Rights was created precisely to guard against populist tendencies in governments. They’re inconvenient, but then so is the task of retaining our humanity in the face of violence and antagonism.

For those with a fatigue for this sort of thing, I highly recommend a visit to the ‘Taking Liberties‘ Exhibition (no, not that Taking Liberties) at the British Library. It has the Magna Carta and other declarations of Rights and Freedoms penned by various men and women from around these isles.

The exhibition set me thinking about the Damian Green affair (something else that seems so divisive that there is so little common ground between the warring parties that debate seems futile). Whilst I personally don’t believe that Jacqui Smith ordered the police into Mr Green’s office, and I do not believe that the Speaker, Michael Martin, colluded in the warrantless searching of the Tory MP’s office, the outcry itself seems like a healthy thing to me. It is good that there is an ‘awkward squad’ barrage of questions every time there is any hint of impropriety. Far from us living in a Stalinist State, as some alledge, it is the indignant calls to account which prevent us sliding into one.


Heh – I wrote:

its down to someone with a little more profile that bloggers to take up the political fight

Ask and it shall be delivered unto you.

Inconvenience as a Security Blanket

Security expert Bruce Schneier on social networking technology:

We never realized how much our security could be attributed to distance and inconvenience — how difficult it is to recruit, organize, coordinate, and communicate without formal organizations. That inadvertent measure of security is now gone. Bad guys, from hacker groups to terrorist groups, will use the same ad hoc organizational technologies that the rest of us do. And while there has been some success in closing down individual Web pages, discussion groups, and blogs, these are just stopgap measures.

This reminds me of a post by DE at Minority Report, discussing ideas of privacy and anonymity (I’ve quoted it before):

Human detective work moves at human pace. The same bloke that linked the two pieces of data could have done a similar task by asking the station manager or a nosy newsagent. If someone is trying to track me down, then someone must think I really am worth the effort.

Its when computers talk to other computers that liberty disappears. Because a computer can correlate countless bits of data and create new records that would take many humans exponentially longer to do. And that gap, or grace period, is actually where anonymity lies, or did.

So technology makes it easier for crimminals and terrorists to target us, but also, one assumes, for the police to trace them.  But it also allows the State to erode our privacy.  Meanwhile, as chronicled many-a-time on this blog, ordinary citizens can use technology to pressure governments to be more open, to expose their lies, and counter official narratives.  The two types of security we desire – protection from crimminal elements, and protection from state intrusion – are often in tension.  It is interesting that new technologies don’t shift the balance one-way or another, but end up assisting all actors: Crimminals, The State, The Citizen.

The question is, does the technology ratchet up the tension, making violations and conflict more frequent?  Or does it pre-empt and head-off many of the flash-points, before they become a problem?