This government has yet to make a case for airstrikes

Putting aside, if we can, the question of whether airstrikes on Syria will, in general, work (I don’t see that they can, without ground forces well beyond the 70k of presumed allies somehow spontaneously settling all of their disagreements), I want to ask why the UK needs to become involved. Broadly, there seem to be two possible reasons:

  • 1) the RAF has capabilities beyond those of the US, Russia, France, etc., and therefore our involvement will make a material difference. Somewhat implausible.
  • 2) we’re doing it purely out of solidarity with those countries. In this case, is the UK’s involvement going to cause ISIS to back down? Persuade those thinking about joining or funding ISIS to change their minds? Or to buy us some goodwill with countries who we already have a relationship with.

I know France is grieving in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, and the anger is understandable. But we should not launch a bombing campaign on the basis of friendship. There are going to be civilian casualties in Syria, no matter how much we talk of the precision of modern armaments. The real question has to be: is that a price we are willing to pay? If our actions save the lives of a greater number of people in Syria and the region, then I could listen to a case for action. How many lives may be sacrificed to save an unknown number of others is a grim calculus, but not unthinkable. But if we join a coalition because Something Must Be Done, and to show solidarity with a mourning France, then we are treating the lives of those in Syria – who, we should not forget, are already suffering in countless ways because of ISIS and the civil war – as mere commodities.

So I want to ask those who are advocating or supporting UK airstrikes in Syria, what is your motivation: is it a genuine belief that they will better the situation (in Syria, the region, or on the streets of Paris, London, etc.)?  Or is really about our status and out relationship with France, NATO, and the wider world?

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Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot

Much has been made of the ‘unelectability’ of Jeremy Corbyn, on the grounds that the British people won’t vote for a party led by a self-described socialist.  Apart from a reliance on this apparently being self-evident to the speaker and their presumed audience, this is normally demonstrated by citing Labour’s disastrous result in the 1983 election under Michael Foot.  I’d like to examine three things about this: who is talking about this comparison and why; what actually happened in 1983; and what I feel the genuine likely outcomes are in the event of Corbyn taking the Labour leadership.

Firstly, I’d note that I don’t expect Labour to win the next general election regardless of the outcome of the contest to become leader.  This is not to say that it isn’t a possibility, whether with a small minority, or in a coalition of some kind, but none of the contenders seem to possess whatever spark is necessary to drag their party to greater heights (of course, this quality might become evident at a later date, but nothing says that such people must always be around.  Certainly the nearest we seem to have in the higher echelons of British politics at the moment is Nicola Sturgeon).  It is a truism that governments lose elections, so the matter may be in the hands of Cameron et al, but an effective Opposition should be attempting to force errors, as I shall later observe.

Who and why?

There are two chief groups attempting to talk down Corbyn’s chances as leader, one inside and one outside the party.  The first are generally more obviously entitled to be listened to on the matter, being as they presumably support one of the other candidates; it is only natural for them to talk down the merits of an opponent.  The worrying aspect is any notion of an ABC movement – Anyone But Corbyn.  The grounds being mentioned for this are that Corbyn will ‘tear the party apart’ by being too far to the left, but this is to entirely misplace the blame for such a possibility, as it is they themselves who are threatening to damage the party they pledge their allegiance to.  If Corbyn is duly elected, they should really be able to bite their tongues and get behind the new leader, at least until he has had a fair chance to show what he might achieve.  To do otherwise would be to reject the notion of a democratic party (albeit in the rarefied form that internal Labour elections practice).  Of course, once they have sufficient evidence that Corbyn isn’t going to lead them into government they may feel free to trigger another leadership contest in the prescribed fashion, should they choose.

The second group are broadly Tories, either members of the party, or those whose inclinations lie that way but whose primary allegiance is to their own financial and business interests.  That the first group should be given any credence regarding an internal Labour election is frankly ludicrous.  They clearly want the outcome mostly likely to lead to a Tory victory in the next general election, and will say whatever they think will produce that result.  But it is a trap to think that one can prognosticate on this basis, since some are talking Corbyn down, while the rest are trying (including via the Telegraph’s rather distasteful campaign to interfere in the matter) to push Labour towards a Corbyn victory, on the grounds that he will be the weakest opponent for Cameron or whoever succeeds him.  Quite simply, Labour voters should not be listening to their opposition.

More complicated is the matter of what business and the majority of the mainstream media are up to.  It is perfectly possible that they are working towards multiple goals: a Corbyn victory to – apparently – secure a future Tory government (with the associated low tax rates and regulation they prefer); a victory for any of the other candidates, but one who has been pushed towards adopting policies (particularly economic, again) that will favour their interests, should the Tories contrive to lose the next general election; or even a full schism in the Labour party, thereby apparently securing a Conservative government in perpetuity.  The single thing most likely to head off all of these is a unified Labour party, under whatever leader the members select, and this is where an examination of the party in and up to 1983.

1983 and Michael Foot

The received wisdom, which we should, as always, be extremely sceptical of, is that Michael Foot’s leadership was the cause of one of Labour’s lowest points when they were roundly beaten by Thatcher’s Conservative party.  And this has been attributed, particularly by those making the link to Corbyn, due to the fact that he was the most left-wing of recent Labour leaders.  Of course, whichever way one wants to read depends very much on personal interpretation, but I think it is pretty easy to show that this version of events is at least highly questionable.  Which is not to say that Foot’s position wasn’t a, even the single biggest, factor, but merely to show that things were considerably more complex (which should be enough to undermine the Foot-Corbyn link).

The simplest matter is the simple question of how, if Foot-style socialism is anathema to the British public, his party polled so strongly against Thatcher’s newly elected government?  Of course this also speaks of the weakness of the Tories at the time, before any of the Prime Minister’s signature policies had been accepted.  But it hardly characterises Foot as unelectable.  The fact is that a lot happened in the intermediate period between general elections, and I think that it is these events that provide us with a more plausible series of explanations than something inherent to Foot’s character.

On the government’s side, it managed to win a lot of public support.  Winning a war certainly helps, notwithstanding the way that Churchill managed to get himself booted out in the aftermath of WW2 (which incidentally demonstrates not only the possibility of a truly left-wing party winning the popular vote, but the virtue of having a clear plan – they won not only on the promise of the welfare state, but by convincing that they knew how to bring it into being).  And they also put themselves in a strong position by framing the conflict with organised labour, which had blighted the country through the 70s, as another war that could and must be won.  They were aided in this by the vast majority of the popular press (only the Daily Mirror publicly endorsed Labour) which, then as now, was controlled by a small number of people who were naturally disinclined to support the notion of unions and strike action.  This also forced Labour into making a choice between backing the ‘fifth column’ unions that comprised much of their traditional support, or taking a proto-Blair position that keeping business happy is the best way to secure social goods.

Lastly,  most importantly, and very much tied to the final point above, the Labour party split.  To expect Foot to win a victory when a good portion of the party he led had departed (and let’s not forget that Foot was the ‘compromise candidate’, so it is hard to say what the outcome might have been had one of the other contenders taken the party leadership).  Imagine if, in a post-Cameron Conservative party, their next leader is somebody happy to proclaim the necessity, if not desirability, of remaining in Europe, only to trigger an exodus by a good portion of the party (including several senior figures) to form a new alliance with UKIP.  While this is not exactly equivalent to the circumstances that led to the SDP-Liberal alliance, I hope it does give an idea of the nature of the split.  One could hardly be surprised at a poor Tory showing in the next general election.

In summary, Foot didn’t lose the election purely because he was too left-wing.  There were many factors, and while there were members who felt that that party was too far to the left, this concern pre-dated his leadership.  Given that the departures were of those on the right of the party, it is possible that a leader more to their tastes might have forestalled the split as it occurred, but it is not unreasonable to think that those on the left might have acted in a parallel fashion if they felt that the party had lost touch with its roots.  Certainly, no alternative candidate could have promised the certainty of entering government that would, just over a decade late, allow Blair to pacify the old guard as he launched New Labour.

Corbyn the candidate

The most striking thing about Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals, notwithstanding the picture painted by his opponents both within and without his party is just how moderate they are.  For a self-described socialist in an era where that has, following the USA, become a dirty word (although it has been pleasing to see Bernie Sanders reclaiming the term over there as something reasonable, even desirable), he really doesn’t seem to display a desire to overturn the existing order.  He is not talking about a massive expansion of welfare, but a mere return to the previous status quo before the Tories began their enthusiastic dismantling of systems.  This is not to say that he may not entertain longer-term ambitions in this, but he is clearly aware of what the public will accept for now.  Neither is he suggesting a massive overhaul of taxation.  He has been very careful to only talk of paying fair shares, and to tie talk of the very well-off paying ‘a little’ more to secure the wellbeing of children and the most deprived.  Rather, he has focussed on how much can be done by making the collection of existingly expected revenues more efficient.  And I realise that every potential government likes to talk about efficiency, but some of this is as simple as increasing the staffing and funds available to HMRC.  While I am sure that there is some level at which diminishing returns cut in, it seems both self-evident and under examination true to observe that monies spent here reap an almost automatic increase in tax revenues that can hardly be objected to as the money is already owed.  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that cutting resources to HMRC to the extent that has occurred of late can only make sense if viewed in highly ideological terms, i.e. that taxation is inherently bad and inimical to a just and prosperous society.  Anyway, I think that few who take a more objective view will object to the plausibility of the suggestion on Corbyn’s part.

Without wanting to carry out a full analysis of Corbyn’s positions – which I may either save for another day, or leave to those more qualified than I – I think that few of them smack of the extreme left.  This is not to say that he might personally prefer a more socialist party, and indeed government.  But he is smart and pragmatic enough to realise that an offer to return to the recent period of the Blair administrations (if without the foreign adventures, and creep against civil liberties) is both appealing and plausible.  The Tories have only been able to remove and reduce tax credits, benefits, and the like on the grounds that it is necessary for a return to prosperity.  And in this they sow the seeds of their own fall, since their ideology requires them both to proclaim the success of their methods and declare their insufficiency.  They and their immediate supporters will only truly be happy with the complete dismantling of the welfare state.  And I think it is pretty clear that very few member of the British public at large want this.  Moreover, an ever increasing proportion are finding that, despite the proclamations of growth, they aren’t feeling any richer, and in many cases are still worse off than before the financial crisis began in 2008.

In short, I think that Corbyn is electable, although his challenge is to show this is the case in the teeth of concerted opposition and mudslinging by his opponents and the mainstream press.  Even if he loses the party leadership contest, the eventual victor needs to realise that taking on many of his positions is the only way that Labour stand to win a general election, barring a complete collapse from their opponents.  They need to emphasise that – as in the Blair years (and I don’t mean to look at them through rose-tinted glasses, because there were many major problems and the economic gains were largely cyclic, but they were marked – at least until Iraq really took off the sheen – by a general feeling of optimism, in contrast to the pessimism since 2008) it is perfectly possible to combine prosperity with a state that at least aims to provide for all of its citizens.  Against this is the fact that austerity has not done what was promised.  Most people do not feel more wealthy, more secure; London seems to have recovered, but even here much of the affluence is tied to the unsustainable rise of the property market.  The main mark of austerity has instead been the increasing rate of transfer of assets from the poor and middle classes to the very wealthy.  Corbyn has begun, and Labour need under whatever leader they choose, to offer an alternative.  Only by fighting, rather than being coopted into supporting, the notion that There Is No Alternative to continuing austerity, do they argue for their own electability, even existence.  And to ‘admit’ that the current situation is the result of Labour profligacy – it isn’t; it was due to buccaneering bankers and light-touch regulation – is only to hark back to the idea that you cannot trust Labour with the finances.  The way to fight the Conservative proclamation of doom – with the rider that only a harsh Tory government can save us – is not to go along with this narrative, but to announce and explain how things could be better under a Labour administration.  Without this, the question is going to be, as now: what exactly is the Labour party for?

Some thoughts on Greece, debt, and morality

So, in the wake of the Greek referendum result, the haggling continues.  And let’s not ignore the fact that this referendum took place as a negotiation tool.  Whether or not it turns out to be useful probably depends on how public the Greeks can keep the negotiations (their opponents across the table don’t really care about the claimed ‘democratic mandate’, not least because they are, at least theoretically, backed by the support of the other 496 million EU citizens who didn’t get a vote).  In a public arena, it benefits them to be thought of as the underdogs; the Germans in particular have shown a sensitivity to coming across as bullies.

The ground may have shifted somewhat – how much remains to be seen – but this vote was never the make-or-break matter that either side pretended it was.  Of course they had to maintain that it was critical, not least because it’s pretty hard to get people to turn out to the polling stations if they’re being told that their ballots make little or no difference.  These things never end; the Greek government will continue to work to maintain as much control as possible of its domestic finances, and the Troika – on behalf of the creditors – will try and maximise the amount and security of the return on its ‘investment’.

Assuming, at least behind closed doors, that both parties understand that this is merely a business negotiation, it’s more interesting to me to look at how the rest of the world views it.  And it appears either that, egged on by much of the media, this is a matter of morality.  On the one hand, plenty of people take the view that, quite simply, one *must* pay one’s debts.  On the other, that forcing Greece into a continuing spiral of cuts and austerity, as a punitive measure and one that shows no sign of returning them to a secure footing from which they might be able to enjoy solvency, is both cruel and unethical.  I admittedly have more sympathy with the latter group, not least because the past few years of austerity in Greece have failed to produce the promised result.  It appears that neither side have an answer to the financial situation, so I’ll take the one that is less reliant on the general misery of the ordinary Greek people, thank you very much.  Anyway, with that given I’d like to look at the bases for insisting on the debt being repaid (aside from those with a direct interest in the matter, for whom the basis should go without saying).

Why repay debts?

Clearly, most people need to repay debts most of the time, otherwise no system of lending money could work.  Just as linguistic communication relies on the fact that the majority of us tell the truth to the best of our ability, any arrangement of financial communication that relied on constant monitoring and coercion would be practically unworkable.  However the conversational analogy works the other way too: any sensible person maintains some kind of measurement of reliability, and is in the habit of confirming important facts.  This may not be due to outright dishonesty; we are all prone to spreading gossip and information the veracity of which is unknown.  Likewise, we may overestimate our own solvency and ability to repay.

However, while acknowledging that a small number of defaults are unavoidable due to unforeseen circumstances, I think most people would still maintain that a debt should be repaid whenever possible.  And when I say ‘whenever’ this usually includes the possibility of extreme discomfort to the debtor (and his or her dependants).  It’s odd how strongly moral the talk around is: debts *must* be repaid or, it is implied, the whole system breaks down.  But just as we can cope with the possibility that some people may not be telling the truth – however unwittingly – we are actually perfectly capable of dealing with defaults.

Initially, I’d demonstrate that the system is perfectly capable of dealing with defaults by observing that pretty much every country has experienced one at some point.  Most several times.  Plenty of observers have gleefully pointed out that Germany, in particular, did several times in the last century.  And in the long term it doesn’t seem to have done them, or their creditor en masse (I’m not disputing that some people will have done very badly at the time) that much harm, as demonstrated by the fact that people and banks continue to lend to them.  More immediately, in the wake of its own banking crisis, Iceland was threatened with being cut off from the world banking system, and ultimately economic destruction, if it failed to make food for its own bad banks.  It refused, and bounced back.  The threats and predictions were fairly rapidly shown to be groundless, little more than hard negotiating tools.

Actually, I’m going to go further and argue that not only are some bad debts inevitable, but they are a necessary part of the system.  This is borne out by the existence of interest; why else is it charged.  Few people can be ignorant of the fact that the rate of interest charged reflects, in large part, the risk that the debt will not be repaid.  But I don’t think they’d be as quick to realise that this is the reason that one expects to receive more than one lent out in the first place.  Of course they might say, Greece or a country in its situation should expect to pay a high rate of interest because of the high risk, but this starts from the basis that creditors would already expect to receive a return on their money.  If one is certain of receiving X amount on their money, then a dubious prospect must offer, say 2X, or more (proportionate to the assesses risk).  Germany can borrow at 1%, where Venezuela must pay 20%, for example.  But even the 1% that Germany pays is based on an amount of risk, however small.  Nowhere is entirely safe.  The fact that *everybody* must pay interest reflects this.  We have grown so used to this that we ignore the fact that money doesn’t actually grow by itself.  It grows because somebody thinks that they can do something else with it while we don’t (or that they can do more with it than we can).  And this is why the possibility of default, and even the necessity of some degree of it, is essential to the financial system.  If nobody ever defaults, why should anybody expect to receive (or pay) interest on their money?

If I have a billion idle pounds and you need it, why shouldn’t I just give it to you?  I ask for 10% interest, but that’s predicated on the fact that I could get 9% elsewhere, with somebody who looks like a safer prospect.  Of course I could just sit on it, leave it under the mattress (assuming that robbery isn’t a concern), but that benefits nobody.  And I think that most people are relatively altruistic: if a friend – i.e. somebody who I don’t consider a risk at all – asks to borrow a tenner from me (which I have spare), I hand it over with no questions asked.  For anybody else I might ask for some kind of collateral or interest, but that is based on risk.  And we all benefit from a world in which the lending of money is not only possible, but common.  Not only might we find ourselves a bit short sometimes, but it allows for economic growth with all of the comforts and possibilities that that affords.

Given this lack of a purely financial justification for arguing against default, it’s unsurprising that we feel the need to fall back on a moral one.  Which isn’t a bad thing, because it’s certainly still true that default should remain relatively rare.  But when appropriate – i.e. when the costs of repaying the debts are too high in either financial or social terms – we shouldn’t feel too guilty about it.

Postscript 1

Of course any specific claims I’ve made about the permissibility of Greece (or any other country) defaulting again are tempered somewhat by the newness of the situation.  The Euro is a new thing, so there are additional potential complications.  But the uncertainty is mirrored – it might ultimately bring down the single currency, but then it might actually strengthen it by allowing all the members to know that there is no inevitability – since neither side knows the future.

Postscript 2

Those with an interest in the connection between morality and debt will no doubt be aware of the commonality, linguistic and otherwise, between religion and finance.  Plenty of people more erudite than I have written on the subject, so I’ll just observe here that the word ‘redemption’ being used in both is merely one of the more prominent exmaples.

Post-Glastonbury blues

Back all the way home (with a London stop-over), and have just had probably the longest sleep of my year – 10 hours, which I used to do at least once a week; man I’m getting old.  Not quite time to start getting excited about the next year, but it won’t be long.  And a fallow year (next is 2017) is hard to get through.

I can be quite evangelical about Glasto, but then I genuinely believe that anybody who goes will find something they love.  You might have to make arrangements if you can’t cope with a sleeping in a basic tent (and there are no shortage of upmarket options if you’ve got the cash), but it’s not like you’re out in the middle of nowhere; you have relatively easy access to everything you really need, and it’s all suffused with an aura of friendliness.  And I mean the last, not as some kind of hippy BS – it’s genuinely nice to be surrounded by people all having a good time.  Even if the rain comes down in buckets, you can always find a friend to chat with and maybe bum a fag off under the canopy of a tent.

Dealing with the complainers

One of the regular Glastonbury traditions is that a lot of people who didn’t go like to shower abuse on the festival and its attendees.  Some of these will be from people who wanted to go and didn’t get tickets, others from long-time opponents of other people enjoying themselves.  Now I’m not going to oppose peoples’ fundamental right to moan, but it’d be nice if the complaints were valid.  I shall respond to a few of the regulars:

  1. It’s too expensive.
    • look, I’m not going to pretend that £225 is money that everybody has, but you need to consider what you’re paying for.  This is not a few bands in a field, but a 5-day holiday.  Or to look at it another way, how much would you expect to pay to see the 3 main headliners?  I don’t imagine you’ll get much change from a ton buying pretty ordinary tickets to see The Who or Kanye.  And you can quite plausibly see another 30 bands on the bill (assuming you’re just going for the music, rather than the many other activities, or even just to sunbathe and have a drink with friends)
  2. Okay, the ticket is fair, but then you get ripped off inside
    • Firstly, you don’t have to spend another penny inside the site.  Unlike many festivals, which won’t let you take food or drink into the ‘arena’, at Glastonbury there is pretty much one restriction: no glass.  As long as you’re willing and able to lug the stuff onto the site – and plenty of people use trolleys for the purpose – you can bring as much for your personal consumption as you like (they will stop you if it looks like you’re going to sell it, but the limit must be pretty high considering the number of people you see with cases and cases of cider, beer, etc.)
    • Secondly, while there are places on site that will sting you, a little attention means that you can certainly eat for a pretty good price.  Don’t stop at the van that is asking £5 for a toasted cheese sarnie, but wander on and pick up a full thali for a couple of quid more.  And while a lot of people seem to baulk at the idea of paying £10 for half a litre of wine, that’s because they’re for some reason comparing with supermarket prices, rather than pub.
  3. The food is awful.
    • Again, there are the usual terrible burger vans but anybody who maintains this really isn’t trying.  This year I had, among other things; the aforementioned thali, half a rotisserie chicken with seasoned potatoes, a beautiful 3 bean stew, some of the best some-made sausages with mash and gravy, and a lobster roll.  While I was having the last, my friend ate some freshly-shucked oysters, and a clam chowder.  It’s particularly (unsurprisingly) good for vegetarians and vegans.  The general rule is to avoid the big vans and head for anything that looks like it’s run by a family out of their people-carrier with a bit of tarp propped up.  Trust me, these people cook because they love it.  And are often happy to let you try a taste, and ask for recipes and tips.
  4. Everybody’s on drugs.
    • I’m not going to deny that there’s a lot of weed on site.  Or that most people are probably going to consume their body-weight in alcohol.  But other stuff, not so much (as a proportion of festival goers – I’m not arguing that there aren’t thousands of people off their faces).   Unless you go in the late night club area, I reckon most people just aren’t prepared to risk the comedown when they’ve got several more days of sleeping in a  field.  Also, you generally want to be able to get to sleep at a homely hour, because by 8 in the morning, your tent is an oven.
  5. It’s a horrible mud bath.
    • This year we were lucky enough to get away with a few showers, but I was still surprised on my return not to see the few clips and photos from these periods being endlessly recycled by the Daily Mail.  It will rain at some point, because it’s England, but the site actually drains pretty well.  You really should take wellies or boots, but that’s just common sense.  These days I’m much more concerned about the dust when it’s dry.  Look, you’re going to get dirty, but if you can’t let your hair down for a few days here, you probably should never leave the city.  And if you’re really insistent on cleanliness, there are (heated) showers available on site.  You just might miss a few bands queuing for them.
  6. The toilets are appalling.
    • Can’t entirely argue.  But then your average pub toilets are pretty unpleasant.  Best avoid the enclosed portaloos, and go for the open air ones.  Although don’t camp next to those.  Also, in recent years they’ve been expanding the eco-friendly composting toilets, which really don’t smell much at all, as long as everybody remembers to chuck a cup of sawdust on their business.  In general, the first time you go on arrival it’s a bit of a shock, but within a day or two, you just don’t notice any more.
  7. It’s all middle-class these days.
    • Again, this is largely true.  But then most people in this country *are* middle-class.  Maybe it was different back in the seventies, but I don’t think it’s been something specifically for hippies and travellers in a long time.  Not that you won’t see many of both groups happily mingling with the families and groups of students.  Just get away from the main stages, and pretty much all of human life is here.  You will see some annoying gap-year types, but then you will also see three generations of a family sitting up on a hill watching Lionel Richie together.  It really is special like that.
  8. It’s all corporate.
    • This is simply not true.  Obviously, there are large companies involved in providing to the festival – security most obviously.  It’s basically a city (maybe 200k people on site at peak), so nobody expects a 79-year old man, his daughter, and few friends to run the whole thing.  But compared to pretty much every other public event, you’ll be struck by how little advertising there is.  The three ‘sponsors’ are Greenpeace, Wateraid, and Oxfam.  They’re the only people who get substantial coverage across the site.  Otherwise, it’s pretty much just the individual stands.  So it depends if your definition of ‘corporate’ includes complaining that EE get to put a banner on the tent they provide for people to recharge their phones.  I’m sure they don’t do this out of the kindness of their hearts, but neither do they get to spill out all over the site. The festival as a whole is still majority owned by the Eavises, and nobody else gets to make decisions about its course.

On Human Rights Act repeal and preaching to the choir

In the UK, we’ve recently elected a new government, and the result was disappointing for many of us.  The Conservatives have now expressed an intention to repeal the Human Rights Act (1998), on the argued grounds that it protects criminals and terrorists.  To be fair to the Tories, they said they were going to before the election, so it can’t really be argued against on those grounds.  I have seen a number of pieces explaining the complications of repeal, generally talking about how it intersects with other legislation and treaty obligations, so to remove the HRA would require unravelling a Gordian knot.  I shan’t go into such matters, since I’m no expert in the legal niceties, except to observe what happened to the mythical Gordian knot; I’m not sure that Michael Gove won’t just forge ahead with his plan and worry about the consequences afterwards (look at Lords reform for a policy under a previous administration that was started without any idea of an endpoint).

So on the basis that, if they believe that it is the right thing to do, the Conservatives might just go ahead and repeal the Act and damn the consequences, their opponents need to make the case as to why this is the wrong thing to do.  Assuming that Her Majesties Opposition do their job (which may be over-optimistic given the last 5 years, but let’s hope the new Labour leadership is a bit more effective), and given the size of the majority currently held by the Conservatives, this looks like a matter of persuading a relatively small number of MPs, either directly or via their constituents, that to do so would be a mistake.  So far so good.

The problem is that while there are a considerable number of people, in both the traditional and new media, making what appear to be very reasonable cases as to why the HRA should not be repealed, I’m not convinced that those who either support or lean towards repeal will listen to them.  Obviously, this is at least in part because there is a lack of direct communication.  You can write as many letters to the Guardian as you like, and Telegraph readers are going to remain cheerfully oblivious.  This is even more heightened by the gap between the traditional and new media.  I love Twitter, but most of the country (certainly that part over the age of, say, 30) barely registers its existence, let alone considers that it might be the site of serious political discussion.  Of course the reverse is also true, as readers of physical media are probably relatively unaware of how irrelevant it seems to the younger generation.  But aside from the issues specific to particular media, I think the major problem is that the two sides are speaking in different languages.

The broadest issue here is that when the term Human Rights is used, different people hear completely different things.  For those of us who *believe* in Human Rights, their existence and nature is self-evident.  While we might debate their precise constitution, for us the fact is that a) there are certain rights that are common to all of humanity, and b) that these are assigned purely on the basis of being human.  For the other side, this is not the case.  At the extreme, there are plenty of people who do not recognise the existence of rights at all, only privileges.  In this case, ‘rights’ are something awarded in return for certain behaviours: paying one’s taxes, adhering to the law, etc.  Secondly, these rights or privileges may be specifically limited to citizens of a particular territory.  This is not an unreasonable position.  In fact, given the concerns over the repeal over the HRA, it is eminently logical: it appears that the rights we are talking about are created by the HRA and similar legislation.  Where we, as believers in Human Rights, diverge is in insisting that these rights exist regardless of the HRA.  For us, the law only recognises, and administrates for, self-evident facts.

So the challenge for those arguing that the HRA should be maintained, or at very least that those who wish to repeal it need to make a lot clearer what exactly will replace it (because nobody is arguing that it is without flaw), is in speaking in way that their opposite numbers understand.

Speaking across the line

So, having determined that we must talk in way that resonates with those we are trying to win over, we must begin by acknowledging who they are.  The first, small, group is ministers and senior members of the Conservative party who find themselves directly frustrated in their plans by the existence of the act.  I suspect persuasion here is a waste of everybody’s time.  The vast majority of people who support, or at least ambivalent to, appeal have far less personally invested in this happening or, more pertinently, believe this to be the case.

To appeal to this large body of people, I think we must make the case in terms of self interest.  To be clear, this is not to say selfishness, as they are as concerned with the good of those around them as are any of us.  But we must explain how the law benefits (and repeal would injure) people like them.  We’re broadly dealing with tribalism.  There opposition is based on what they believe to be right for their family, friends, and the country at large.

For the above group, the apparent effects of the act can be summarised in two broad categories: it protects and privileges criminals and terrorists, or at least people suspected of being such; it has no positive effects for ‘hard-working’, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens such as themselves.  That the former is, at least partially, the case is unarguable (the protecting part, not the privileging – if it gave rights to the accused that were not general to the population, it would indeed be flawed).  This is part of what it is supposed to do.  The idea that it does not do the latter, though, is attached to the notion that there are two distinct classes of people, which we might just call ‘criminals’ and ‘citizens’.  (by the way, I’m fully aware that I’m doing the dividing thing myself by talking in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, but this is merely regarding temporary positions on a single argument, not a lasting classification)

So, I think the case needs to be built, or restated, given the fact that it is self-evident to many, that the division here is false.  That by committing a crime, still less by being accused of one, one does not suddenly move beyond the pale.  That a criminal, a protestor, an asylum seeker, is not in any way a different *sort* of person to any of the rest of us ‘law-abiding’ types.  As long as you can accept, or even self-construct, a narrative where there is the sort of person who this happens to, and the sort of person you are, it’s only a small step to believing that they deserve different treatment.  It’s not as naked as self-interest vs. not caring what happens to others, but the fact remains that we find it hard to empathise with people without a strong personal connection.  And that can be manipulated by those who control the narrative.  I think much of it is actually driven by our need to believe in natural justice.  We know we live in a world where some people are treated badly, and the idea that we are somehow complicit in that is deeply troubling.  So we listen to those who tell us that those who are in trouble must have done something to deserve it.

I think the case that needs to be made to save the HRA is based on asserting its benefits for all of us.  It doesn’t help that if you are, say, a white middle class professional, you do generally get treated well by the authorities if you should happen to come into contact with them.  You think, for the most part, that they are fair.  Your day-to-day experience shows you this.  And if they are fair to you, why wouldn’t they be fair to everyone else?  But while an unchecked state may start by treading on the smallest of us, it will see no reason not to extend the practice.

The case needs to be made that a state and a people that does not respect and protect the least of us, the disadvantaged, the criminals, those who do not have citizenship, does not in the end respect or protect any of us, except maybe those who are rich and powerful enough to buy their own way.  Only by showing that we are all the same, that Human Rights are exactly what they are called, are we going to be able to win over those who see the HRA as unnecessary or even bad.

Fancy dress

I’ve been invited to another party which expects fancy dress.  It’s in my flat, with my flatmates, so I shall be going and I’m sure it’ll be fun, but it’s such a pain trying to sort out a costume, and I don’t enjoy it.  I just want to get drunk, eat some snacks, chat about shit and maybe, if the stars are right, hook up with someone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly happy for other people to do it if they want, but I’m sure I’m not the only person who gets annoyed.  And for what?  If I make an effort, I might get a few people congratulating me on it in the opening minutes.  But then it’ll soon become an irrelevance.  I’ve never come across a party that was actually more *fun* because everyone attired themselves as a character or celebrity.  At least not since I was five.

I think the trouble is that there are some people who do actually enjoy it, and they don’t see this.  ‘Oh, just put on some old clothes from the back of your wardrobe and come as the 70s or something’ they say, unaware of the fact that I don’t have any clothes I don’t really wear.  If your the sort of person who loves this shit, I’m sure you keep old clothes and bits and pieces that you can put together.  My wardrobe consists of lots of t-shirts, some shirts, and a few pairs of jeans.  Which I am fine with.  So dressing up either involves hunting round charity shops, which I hate as much as I do shopping of any variety – an ideal trip for clothes involves going into the first place I can find, trying something on, and buying if it fits.  Or finding an actual costume, from a party shop or hire place.  And these are invariably either shit, or totally impractical.  Like those with a cool rubber mask that renders one incapable of drinking.  Or is so hot that it has to be removed within a few minutes of arrival.

Anyway, that’s enough moaning for now. I’m sure the party will be fun, I just wish I didn’t feel that I have to fuck around beforehand in order to not look miserable.  Cos I’m not.

Why you shouldn’t vote (unless you want to).

Social media – and presumably RL media, but I don’t have as much access to that, being abroad – is currently full of people reminding everybody, and especially young people, to register to vote.  And by implication (or outright demand) that they should cast their ballot in a few weeks.  The first I broadly agree with, as it would be a terrible shame if anybody who wanted to vote missed out because they forgot or didn’t understand when or how they need to apply.  Despite changes in the system, it’s still apparently remarkably easy.  Just to clarify that I’m not actually against the whole thing, here’s the link:

https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote

Today’s the last day, but it only takes a few minutes.  And while they’d like your NI number, you don’t actually require one.  Anyway, that bit out of the way, let me explain why I’m slightly uncomfortable with the whole thing, and why choosing not to vote (as long as its a choice, rather than something forced upon you) is perfectly legitimate.  So a few points.

Firstly, fundamental to every properly constituted right is the right not to *do or be* whatever that right allows.  Freedoms of speech include the right to keep one’s own counsel.  Freedom of religion requires the right to have no religion.  Hell, even the right to bear arms needs to allow the choice to go unarmed, otherwise it’s not a right, it’s an obligation (as when you’re doing military service where that applies).  To not participate is always a legitimate choice.  Without wanting to get completely sidetracked, I’d say this even applies to the right to life itself.

Secondly, I’m really uncomfortable with all these people saying that people should vote because that’s why ‘your grandparents went to war’, ‘Emily Davison died’, or even, most absurdly, ‘Nelson Mandela went to jail.’  Obviously many of these things may not even vaguely be connected with the franchise.  But even if they are, fighting for the right and freedom to *be able* to vote doesn’t in itself place any obligation on one’s successors.  And there’s something vaguely unpalatable about trying to browbeat people in this fashion.  How dare anybody who doesn’t know them use the actions and sacrifices of the dead to argue in this way?  Moreover, why should the association with obligations to previous generations be a good one?  There’s something extremely patronising about the whole process, especially in the broad use of the the term ‘young people.’  As a young(ish) person, I’m acutely aware of how the profligacy and greed of (some) older people has screwed the youth of today, as it will others for years to come.  So maybe people need to be careful when advising those younger than themselves, as if age automatically brings wisdom.

Why you shouldn’t vote (unless you want to)

You might not want to vote is simply because you have no interest in doing so.  Either you don’t think that your vote will have any effect, don’t care about the outcome, don’t fully understand the system, or believe that none of the candidates offered you are close enough to your views.  These are all perfectly good reasons.

If you live in a safe constituency, the first is likely.  You will still have people saying that your vote matters.  Firstly, you may think this is bollocks, and that’s not unreasonable.  But even if you do see your vote as having some weight, why should this be a good thing?  Turnout will be used to legitimise the result, whoever wins (although it will also be conveniently ignored when it doesn’t suit purposes).  And it might also serve to entrench the current system, as a high level of participation clearly shows that it works, right?  Of course you might think the exact opposite, especially if you favour one of the smaller parties; if you support the Greens, say, then the higher the share of the national vote compared with the number of seat(s) they win, the stronger you might think the argument is for some form of electoral reform.  If so, vote!  But only if you think it’s the right thing to do.

Secondly, don’t vote unless you feel comfortable with your understanding of its effects.  I don’t mean that you need to have scoured the manifesto of the party you intend to support, still less be prepared to predict how much of it they’ll actually adhere to in the event of success.  But do try to make a genuine choice.  I remember far too many people at my first election – ’97 – happily announcing that they would just vote the same way as their parents.  This seems a waste.  Not that you should just go another way to be rebellious.  I’ve seen some of the arguments against the female franchise that observed that a woman’s vote would either cancel out her husband’s (because *obviously* any respectable woman would be married), or needlessly duplicate it.  This conveniently ignored the fact that the whole point is to have the choice.  If you vote, do so in the way that you think you should.  Don’t just blindly follow somebody else.  You might end up supporting somebody who will work against your interests.  Listen to other people, and then make your decision.

Finally, remember that voting is far from the only way you can have an effect in a democratic society.  In fact, it can be a negative one, in that it indicates support for the status quo.  One of the ways I happen to think that things should change in the UK is the addition of a ‘None of the above’ option on the ballot.  It should be possible to say, sorry, but all of these people are rubbish, and I’d like to be offered some better choices.  And voting alone isn’t likely to change this, not least because our FPT (First Past the Post) system isn’t really equipped to deal with it.

Vote.  Don’t vote.  Write to your MP (it doesn’t matter if you voted for them or not), after the election.  Organise.  March.  Do what you can to create the country that you want to see.  But don’t feel like voting is either required or the only thing you can do to make your voice heard.

Postscript

I am acutely aware that, even cautiously, endorsing not voting puts me on the same side as Russell Brand.  And I’m fine with that.  I don’t particularly like him, and I disagree with many of his opinions, but he’s right on much of this one.  At the very least, he’s informed a lot of people about the various other ways you can exercise your democratic rights beyond marking your ballot paper.  Don’t vote unless you want to, but do be political about the things that matter to you.

On responsibility

One form of power in society is the ability to avoid, or at least be selective about, responsibility for one’s actions.  When an ‘ordinary’ person does something wrong, we naturally expect them to apologise, be punished, or otherwise act to correct their mistake.  Even if the event was something out of their personal control, there tends to be sage muttering of things like: ‘actions have consequences’, as if these are bound by the laws of physics rather than malleable societal standards.

The thing that brought this to mind right now is the, just announced, UK Supreme Court ruling on the publication of Prince Charles’s letters to various minister.  Or more specifically, the government’s attempt to block a FoI ruling that allowed their publication.  In particular, the then attorney general”Grieve over-ruled the tribunal, arguing that publication of the letters between September 2004 and April 2005 would “seriously damage” the Prince of Wales’s kingship.”  (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/live/2015/mar/26/prince-charles-memos-supreme-court-ruling-live)  This is what pisses me off.  Firstly a declaration of my republican sympathies – I’m not a supporter of the monarchy, but I think I still understand what it’s for.  And if the status of the monarch is to be damaged by release of this correspondence, then the responsibility clearly lies with the writer.  If the heir to the throne was trying to interfere with what I shall only half-sarcastically refer to as the democratic process, then we should be able to know about it, and if he doesn’t like that then maybe he should keep his mouth shut and do his job as a figurehead.

Of course this is only part of a wider pattern of attempting to conceal access to government.  Fortunately there are people who are happy to expose such matters as just how often Rupert Murdoch and his associates get invited to Downing Street (I assume somewhat less in the aftermath of Coulson).  However, the response to this is to deny that anything of substance occurs at these meetings.  It is suggested that these are merely social events, from which no substantive matters of policy evolve.  Obviously I’m sceptical of that for several reasons: firstly the very idea that one can remain unaffected by those one meets, especially when they include such political operators as Murdoch; and secondly because otherwise why would an American billionaire repeatedly show up for courtesy drinks; and finally because why else are those involved so determined to keep these meetings under wraps?

The attempts to conceal access to government for both the heir to the throne and various wealthy individuals are particularly egregious in that not only do ministers want to keep hidden what was said, but don’t want the public knowing that the meetings (or other contact) have even taken place.  This makes me think of the disingenuousness surrounding various states’ attempts to monitor the private communications of its citizens.  The defence is offered that they are only looking at ‘metadata’, i.e. they don’t read your emails/listen to your calls, only look at who you are talking to.  The idea is that your chat with your mum is private, while the long conversation you had with a known terrorist can be flagged, and then read once the proper legal channels have been followed.  This pretends that nobody can work out why you might have called Dominos at 2330, or what that email from the STI clinic might have related to.  If metadata is so innocent, why try to suppress news of who has been dining with the PM?

Defending the indefensible

Of course the other news item du jour that has prompted a mass waiving or displacement of responsibility is the Clarkson departure (I call it thus because it’s still unclear whether he’s been sacked, not had his contract renewed or, as at least one wag has had it, been reduced to zero hours).  You can argue that Clarkson is a great presenter and entertainer (and I can see that, although I’m much more disappointed at/in James May), or even try to deny that the incident occurred as described.  Which would be a little bizarre as Clarkson himself hasn’t made any attempt to deny what happened, only justify himself.  But if the violence and abuse did go down exactly as described, it’s hard to see how you can blame anybody except Clarkson himself.  From the attempts to place the blame on a BBC conspiracy (an organisation that is still, despite the insistence of its detractors, overwhelmingly run by white, middle-class, conservative male Oxbridge types), to the unconscionable further abuse hurled at the victim of Clarkson’s attack, this is an attempt to deny responsibility on behalf of somebody who has no need for such defence even if it were grounded in fact.  And the fracas provided such clear grounds for dismissal that Clarkson’s opponents haven’t even had to go near his repeated public racism.

Postscript

Of course, the powerful have always been able to evade responsibility for their actions; to my mind, that is a major part of what power is.  And even in cases where matters do catch up with them to an extent, they are never punished to a significant degree: resigning ministers tend to wander into directorships or sinecures; Clarkson will continue to sell books and will presumably reappear elsewhere on our screen before very long.  But at the other end of the social spectrum there is no such flexibility.  Benefits claimants, despite in the vast, vast, vast majority being in a situation not of their devising, are given no sympathy at all.  The public assumption is that if somebody is unemployed it must because they got themselves fired, or are too lazy, or greedy (which conveniently ignores how difficult it is to live on such limited funds).  If the keyboard warriors and green ink brigade really want something to rant about, maybe they should consider the ease with which the most desperate in society are sanctioned by the system that’s supposed to help them maintain a basic standard of living, and allow them to participate fully in society (including, in most cases, getting back to work in a position that suits their skills and abilities)

The wealthy and powerful are forgiven and shielded for every fuck-up, while the poor and voiceless are hounded for the slightest misdemeanour, oreven totally chance event.  That makes *me* want to punch somebody in the face.

On not voting

I used to be a hardcore member of the ‘if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about the outcome’ gang.  It’s one of the few matters I think I’ve completely switched my position over.  I mean, I’ve changed my mind over various matters of policy upon learning more about them, and my overall views have drifted, and interests broadened, but in the most part I’m not that far from where I was at 18.

To be fair, the world has changed a lot since I first voted in 1997.  Maybe I and my friends were naive and lacking in political education, but everyone seemed a lot more optimistic (not least because of the state of the economy and the end of the Cold War and all of its knock-on effects), and the major parties actually looked a little different from each other.  It actually felt like things were changing for the better and, notwithstanding Tony Blair’s later exploits, I think they were.   This is not to look back through rose-tinted spectacles, as there was a lot still wrong at the time, but it does feel that various matters have been moving backwards in the last few years, for the first time in my life.

It’s just a shame that the whole idea of not-voting has become so dominated of late by the figure of Russell Brand.  Not that I’m entirely opposed to the guy – it’s good that he seems to have engaged younger people in politics, and I agree with him on a good number of matters.  But then he doesn’t exactly have the best record in other areas – particularly in his treatment of women.  And more dangerously, his rather silly public persona can undermine causes he associates with – it can be presented to show that *serious people* vote,and  only foppish comedy millionaires would think otherwise.

Anyway, I’m not going to be voting in the 2015 general election, due to the whole living in another country thing.  But I’m not bothered about that.  I can still participate in UK politics in a whole raft of other ways, and intend to do more when I return to London.  I still think that everybody should be political, and I’m happy for people to vote as part of that.  But marking a ballot paper shouldn’t be the end of anybody’s engagement.

Why men must believe women about rape.

CW; TW: rape

This is the first post I’ve written for a particular audience: other men.  This is because the last thing women need – and it’s not as if they don’t already have a near infinite supply – is another man telling them about something they are far more qualified to talk about.  Also, as a feminist/ally/whatever, I understand that the most helpful thing I can do is try to talk to other men, because that’s where – at least in theory – I have an advantage.

The key point is that rape is not like other crimes, and until men at large appreciate this, it’s going to be difficult to act effectively against it.  This is not to say that all other acts are the same, but rape cannot just be treated as another offence on the list the police and courts are to deal with.  This is not just because it is overwhelmingly directed at women (and, yes, I am perfectly aware that a significant number of men will also experience rape), nor because of the terrible stigma attached to being a victim, although both of these are related.  But in no other crime is it quite so common to find people denying that it ever happened.  This is why you’ll find campaigns, hashtags, petitions and the like circulating to announce that other women *believe* an accuser.  It’s all too easy to mentally dismiss these as being about female solidarity – and that is part of it, and a good thing in its own right – but it goes beyond that, as rape is the only crime where the public response routinely involves attacking the victim.

Take a murder trial: at some point in proceedings, the defence is able to provide a good enough alibi that the defendant is acquitted; so what happens next?  Obviously this may be upsetting for the victim’s family and friends, and a set-back for the police and CPS, but a setback is all it (necessarily) is.  The first thing you expect to see outside the court is the leading officer announcing that they intend to reopen the investigation and find out who *really* committed the crime.  The same would apply for an assault, a robbery, or any of a variety of other crimes, and it may be true in the case of the cliched attack-by-a-masked-man-in-a-dark-alley.  But with the vast majority of rapes, when the trial falls apart (assuming that things have advanced that far) the default assumption is now that the alleged crime never actually took place.  Or that there was sexual activity, but the nature of it magically changed to being either fully consensual, or a mere misunderstanding or miscommunication (not that the latter should be excusable).

It’s not so much that I’m arguing that we should treat rape differently de novo, as observing that we already do, so we need to react to that.  When a killing, or a theft is announced, we immediately accept the reality of the crime.  There may be all sorts of theories floating around about the perpetrator, or how the crime was committed, but things have to get to a pretty extreme state before we consider that it might not have happened in the first place.  So really, in saying that we believe a rape victim is only to restore that crime to the status we accord to the rest.  To say that we believe a rape victim is to accord to them no more than the basic courtesy afforded to the rest of society.

Some expected responses

Now a certain fraction of mankind will immediately leap up against the idea that any one crime should be treated differently to the rest as counter to various principles of justice.  My first response to that is to observe that legal and judicial systems are constructed and evolve over time; we might like to pretend that there are eternal underlying concepts, but the fact is that we have constantly modified both laws and systems to reflect the wider society.  Also we already treat different crimes in slightly different fashions.  Nobody seems to object to the notion that sexual crimes need to be handled with greater delicacy than others.

The second is to observe that apologists often seem very attached to a misreading of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  This is part of a whole raft of narrow legal principles that people like to interpret as general rights, but without any sound basis (see also: people shouting about Freedom of Speech while failing to understand that the right, as most clearly given by the first amendment to the US constitution, which even non-US citizens tend to use a benchmark, is purely to not have *the state* limit one’s speech).  If you’ve committed a crime in fact, you are not innocent up until the moment of conviction, in the sense of not having done it.  The facts themselves do not change.  You *are* innocent in the eyes of the law, but that is not the same thing.  Nor is there any expectation against members of the public forming opinions at any stage in proceedings, except in the case of their being required to perform jury service.  I challenge anybody to read the news without forming instant (if potentially malleable) opinions about the guilt or innocence of those reportedly involved in any incidents they read a few lines about.

And finally, and associated with the above, there’s the fact that a rape trial is, to an extent, zero-sum.  To say that the defendant is innocent is necessarily to imply that the accuser is guilty (of fabricating, or at least exaggerating the incident).  And in plenty of cases it goes much further than that: it has been horrible to observe over the past few years how many people tangentially connected to the Ched Evans case have attacked the victim in all sorts of public ways.  And the rest of us have largely let this go because this is what the friends and family of someone accused of a crime are *supposed* to do – leap to the defence.  But in the case of rape this can seemingly only be done by attacking the character and credibility of somebody who has already been subject to a horrific crime (and let’s not ignore that in this case he was convicted and hasn’t been able to provide grounds to appeal or overturn).

So this is why it’s important to believe anybody who says that they have been raped.  We all know it happens a lot, even if we refuse to believe it in the face of overwhelming statistics.  On the same basis we should also know that false accusations are vanishingly rare (not least because of the huge cost to the victim of going public.  I don’t know where this myth of women getting rich and famous of the back of making accusations came from, but it’s as persistent as it is poisonous).  But even if this were a possibility, with any other crime we’d expect the police and the courts to root it out.  The women who have been raped deserve our support, and much of that comes from simply saying that we believe them.  There is a time and place for scepticism, but it is not in the face of somebody who has just faced one of the worst experiences a person possibly can, and who will also be acutely aware that this is just the beginning of their ordeal.

Believing rape victims is the only decent thing to do.

Postscript

Please note that when I’ve talked about rape in this, I include various other sexual offences; this is not about a particular legal definition, but a type of crime and how society does (and should) deal with it.