Wootton Bassett

Islam4UK want to march through Wooten Basset in a provocative protest against the British presence in Afghanistan. It is, as Dave Osler says on Liberal Conspiracy, a huge “headache” for the principled secular left who want defend free speech. Also at LibCon, Scepticisle points out that Anjem Choudry, who leads Islam4UK, is a “media troll” who is being deliberately provocative.  He wants to provoke a violent reaction, and the best course of action is to not give him one.  This means allowing the march to proceed, however offensive the message.  The small numbers it will attract will demonstrate just how fringe and ridiculous Choudry and his ideas actually are.

I’m surprised by the illiberal line taken by James Alexander at Progress:

This planned event will turn to violence and lead to a counter-response by the English Defence League. Then the BNP will begin to stir up divisions in the surrounding localities.

Even if you disagree with the actions of the brave soldiers who fight to protect British security, it is wrong to antagonise the families of the fallen. This is hateful and evil. I am writing to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson MP, to call for Islam4UK to be also banned.

I don’t buy into the meme that a provocative march will necessarily be met with violence from outraged Britons.  Politicians and public figures should seize this as a ‘teaching moment’ and now use their influence to condemn in advance such actions, and inspire people to a more tolerant approach.  Gordon Brown has failed to do this so far.

Alexander’s Progress piece seems to have been seized upon by the sort of comments that one usually sees on tabloid comment boards.  I’ve just posted my own comment which sums up what I think:

I disagree with James Alexander … in suggesting that the Islam4UK march should be banned. That would be anti-free speech. If our troops are fighting for anything in Afghanistan, it is human rights, including the right to free expression (something sadly lacking in that country at the moment). The greatest tribute to our soldiers, living and fallen, would be to maintain our principles consistently at home and abroad: This means allowing the Islam4UK march.

The idea that the British people en mass cannot control themselves when confronted with a sorry band of Islamists is ridiculous and divisive. Locals and others who disagree with Islam4UK’s ridiculous ideas are perfectly capable of staging a bigger, peaceful counter-march, without any of the pathetic threats of violence that the other commenters here are so keen to see realised. It is this, and only this course of action that is consistent with the British spirit of tolerance and democracy. Progress members should be using their power and influence to bring this course of action about. Anything less is to sink towards the level of the fundamentalists.

Photo by Robin Hodson
A Wootten Basset memorial procession, 17th Nov 2009. Photo by Robin Hodson on Flickr.

Answering the McCann Question

Mark Pack asked me to write a guest piece for the Liberal Democrat Voice on Libel Reform. It was a good opportunity to dig a little deeper into the argument for reform, and rebutt one of the most common objections to making changes.

Free Speech is Not For SaleThe clamour for a change to our pernicious libel laws grows louder every day.  In November, Index on Censorship and English PEN published Free Speech is Not For Sale, a report into the state of libel in England & Wales, and the bizarre phenomenon of libel tourism.  Impressed by this report, Jack Straw announced the creation of a working group to deliver reform.  Lib Dem peer Lord Lester announced on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme he will begin drafting a libel bill, and MPs have begun to sign EDM 423 (tabled by Dr Evan Harris) which demands a libel overhaul.  High profile cases like the recent battle between Trafigura and the BBC, and the suing of cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, have shown the general public what a blight on free speech our libel laws have become, and a petition for change is nearing ten thousand signatures (do sign it if you haven’t already).

Not everyone is convinced by the need for reform, however.  Some people resist the need for change, and it is up to campaigners to win the argument.  Since the Bournemouth conference made a brave manifesto commitment to libel reform in September, ‘campaigners’ now includes every Liberal Democrat party activist.  Liberal Democrat Voice is the ideal place to explore the sticking points of this debate a little more deeply. Continue reading “Answering the McCann Question”

A True Born Englishman?

I did not comment on Nick Griffin’s Question Time appearance last month because I was on holiday.  But I did catch it on one of the BBC World channels which are helpfully broadcast into South Africa.

Overall, my impression was that the other pannelists collectively agreed to discredit Griffin with ad hominems, rather than engage with, and demolish his arguments.  Several obvious and definitive retorts went begging.  For example, in response to Griffin’s unsophisticated critique of Islam, Baroness Warsi could simply have pointed out similar hateful lines from the Christian bible.  Instead, she made a round-about speech on the contribution of Muslims to Britain which looked like abvoidance of the question.  Likewise with the pathetic nonsense about “indigenous” Britons.  None of the pannellists seemed to counter this in the definitive manner I would have liked to see.

What they needed was some poetry.  I am delighted to discover The True Born Englishman by Daniel Defoe, written in 1703.  An excerpt:

The western Angles all the rest subdu’d;
A bloody nation, barbarous and rude:
Who by the tenure of the sword possest
One part of Britain, and subdu’d the rest
And as great things denominate the small,
The conqu’ring part gave title to the whole.
The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English-Saxon all unite:
And these the mixture have so close pursu’d,
The very name and memory’s subdu’d:
No Roman now, no Britain does remain;
Wales strove to separate, but strove in vain:
The silent nations undistinguish’d fall,
And Englishman’s the common name for all.
Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
What e’er they were they’re true-born English now.

It reminds me of England, Half English by Billy Bragg:

My mother was half English and I’m half English too
I’m a great big bundle of culture tied up in the red white and blue
I’m a fine example of your Essex man
And I’m well familiar with the Hindustan
Cos my neighbours are half English and I’m half English too.


Andrew Sullivan makes this point in The Sunday Times, in a post about race in America: ‘Scratch white America and beneath it is black‘.

Guardian Gagged

Houses of Parliament at dusk. Photo by yrstruly on Flicker (CC licence)
Houses of Parliament at dusk. Photo by yrstruly on Flicker (CC licence)

This cannot be left without comment:

Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

If it is any consolation, the order papers are in the public domain1, so those with a mind to do so have followed the trail.  The consensus on Twitter and the blogs is that it refers to this question:

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

Thanks to The Third Estate for doing the legwork.

It would be no surprise if these extrapolations turn out to be true.  The Guardian has been following the Trafigura story for months and reported in May on the dumping of toxic ‘slops’ in the Ivory Coast.  The theory is that the paper wanted to publish details of the Minton Report by consulting scientists MTD.   The report recently appeared on Wikileaks.

This is also another example of the Streisand effect in action.  The fascinating TrendsMap shows that the words ‘Trafigura’, ‘Dumping’, ‘Gagging’ and ‘Guardian’ are the most talked about keywords. As @alexmassie says on Twitter:

Had never heard of Trafigura until they tried to ban the reporting of parliamentary proceedings. Fools.

1. As an aside – The House of Commons website is bloody awful. Anyone using the official record for any reason is likely going to want to cite a particular column, line, or question, rather than an entire webpage. The list of questions should be properly numbered so I can link direct to the part I want – in this case, question 61.

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.

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.

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.