Monthly Archives: February 2008

Banning things

Madsen Pirie wrote the following on the Adam Smith Blog last week:

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has a real problem. Last week one of his MPs tabled a bill in Parliament to force pubs and bars to sell wine in small measures only, while one of his party’s MEPs called for a ban on patio heaters.

The result is that poor Nick Clegg has seen his party made to look stupid yet again. He needs to take a lesson from Peter Mandelson, who introduced tight controls over what initiatives individual Labour politicians might launch or pontificate about. It made him unpopular, but it made his party able to control its image. Nick Clegg will have to do something similar or risk seeing idiots and charlatans make his party a laughing stock week after week.

This being the ASI, I’m sure they don’t see the irony in calling for Clegg to ban something in the interest of not wanting to look as if he’s in favour of banning things, but actually they have a point. I’m not clear that the world will be much improved by either Hall’s or Mulholland’s proposals. The growth in patio heater demand was particularly predictable given we saw precisely this happen as soon as Ireland introduced their own smoking bans a few years ago. The law of unintended consequences is not quite the same thing as a law of unpredictable consequences. It’s horses for courses.

I happen to agree that Lib Dem MPs ought to be very, very cautious about banning things or imposing greater regulation, and to always look towards a non-statutory solution first. But with that said, I’m not convinced we’re any worse at it as a party than any other.

Take the Tories for instance. Jonathan Calder has already taken David Davis to task for his call to lock up every underage drinker he can get his mitts on. Meanwhile, at the end of this month Tory MP Julian Brazier will be seeking to get the British Board of Film Classification (Accountability to Parliament and Appeals) Bill through its second reading. BBFC, for all its faults, is an example of relatively successful self-regulation, until the Thatcher government made it a semi-QUANGO during the video nasty scare. Brazier however wants to go even further:

A Bill to make provision for parliamentary scrutiny of senior appointments to the British Board of Film Classification and of guildlines produced by it; to establish a body with powers to hear appeals against the release of videos and DVDs and the classification of works in prescribed circumstances; to make provision about penalties for the distribution of illegal works; and for connect purposes

In other words, Brazier is seeking Parliamentary powers to exert political pressure on the BBFC and effectively make it its puppet. A vice-like grip of state control over popular culture in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. Roy Jenkins must be spinning in his grave.

I’m not sure that anything any Lib Dem politician has proposed comes close to this, yet I don’t hear the ASI lecturing Cameron.

The other recent call to ban something has come from some teenagers in Corby, who have enlisted the Childrens Commissioner and Liberty in their mission to get the Mosquito banned. This is a much more difficult issue, since these devices are explicitly discriminatory against young people, yet at the same time totally indiscriminate in that they don’t distinguish between thugs and the vast majority of innocent teenagers. I’ve got enormous sympathy for the kids.

And yet… despite the fact that for any public body to use such a device would be a clear breach of the HRA in my view, I’m not sure anything much would be gained by banning it altogether. I’m not convinced we should treat this as a zero-sum game between youths and shopkeepers. I can understand why shopkeepers in some places may be at their wits’ end and resort to such measures. I can’t help but feel this is endemic of a wider social problem. Just as the Mosquitoes don’t solve anti-social behaviour as much as move it on, banning them wouldn’t tackle the underlying issue either.

It seems to me we need to take a more constructive approach, and that the solution is best left to people locally to sort out for themselves. Broadly then, much as it pains me to say it, I think the government line is the right one.

Just in case you thought I was being too nice to the government though, let’s focus on its plans to block prostitute’s telephone lines. How wrong is this? Let me count the ways:

1. Assuming it could be made to work, it would force prostitutes out onto the street and in a more dangerous environment.
2. It costs £10 £1.99 to buy a new phone number these days in the form of a sim card. Assuming these are not summary police powers the government is proposing, they would go through costly legal procedures to ban a number, only to find the same prostitute working with a new number within a matter of hours.
3. Even if the government did give the police summary powers here and all the civil liberty implications that would entail, the prostitutes could simply switch over to email accounts.

This sounds less like a crackdown on prostitution and more like an elaborate and expensive game of cat-and-mouse.

The impulse to ban things is rooted in our desire for symbolism but even in the case of unambiguously bad things it is rarely a simple, cut and dried matter. We should always be wary of doing so – and that applies to all parties.

UPDATE: Some great background on the BBFC on Edis Bevan’s blog.

Rowan Williams: still clinging onto exceptionalism

Blink and you might miss it, but someone at the BBC has finally spotted the real problem with Williams’ speech and his repeated clarifications:

He made that clear to the Synod, too: “…as the assumptions of our society become more secular…Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together.”

That of course lays him open to a quite proper charge by non-believers, that he is seeking to advance the interests of religion however it is defined. But that is quite separate from the criticism assailing him from within Anglicanism.

The point which much of the media has ignored is that Williams has argued for a system of exceptionalism whereby we atheists (or, as he put it in his speech on Thursday, sterile positivists) must abide by the rule of law while anyone of faith can negotiate whatever opt-outs they wish. At the same time, of course, he insists that the Church should be established and retain its existing seats in the House of Lords. Gay marriage, and even same-sex registered partnerships, is apparently a threat that undermines the institution of marriage, yet we should at least be open-minded about the idea of Muslim polygamy. People of faith can say what they like about atheists, but atheists should be locked up for slagging off the religious. In short, he believes absolutely in equal rights with the modest proviso that the religious are more equal than the rest of us.

Sadly, I suspect that because of all the sound and thunder over sharia, we won’t have a wider debate about this most pernicious part of his thinking. Ho hum. The only rational response is to all go and join Charlotte Church’s Jedis.

UPDATE: Another point which I meant to include here but forgot was a reminder that for all Williams’ exhortation about the importance of human rights, it was the Church of England that demanded that they be exempted from such rights when the Human Rights Bill was being debated in 1998.

Is time travel the new porn?

The Daily Mail’s Science Editor Michael Hanlon has a pop at the trend in physics towards ever more outlandish theories in the New Scientist this week:

Fun yes, but is it harmless? Scientists, and people like me who stick up for science, are happy to pour scorn on astrologers, homeopaths, UFO-nutters, crop-circlers and indeed the Adam-and-Eve brigade, who all happily believe in six impossible things before breakfast with no evidence at all. Show us the data, we say to these deluded souls. Where are your trials? What about Occam’s razor – the principle that any explanation should be as simple as possible? The garden is surely beautiful enough, we say, without having to populate it with fairies.

The danger is that on the wilder shores of physics these standards are often not met either. There is as yet no observational evidence for cosmic strings. It’s hard to test for a multiverse. In this sense, some of these ideas are not so far, conceptually, from UFOs and homeopathy. If we are prepared to dismiss ghosts, say, as ludicrous on the grounds that firstly we have no proper observational evidence for them and secondly that their existence would force us to rethink everything, doesn’t the same argument apply to simulated universes and time machines? Are we not guilty of prejudice against some kinds of very unlikely ideas in favour of others?

Coming from a Daily Mail man, this sounds like fightin’ talk (to be fair to him, I haven’t read anything by Hanlon that I would characterise as scare-mongering anti-science, but as the Science Editor you’d have thought he’d have some say in the sillier stories that do follow this trend in his paper). He has a point though. New Scientist’s cover story this week is about a scientific theory that the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN could be made into the world’s first time machine. When you get into the detail though, it turns out that this whole theory depends on “dark energy” of which we know very little, being used to “stretch” open the mouth of the resulting wormhole in space-time to allow us to communicate – let alone walk – through it. That’s a whole heap of speculation.

It sells copies of the New Scientist, but somehow I doubt we are on the brink of a major new discovery of this kind any time soon. And if we were it will probably not be anything like the future we imagined. Just as we have been denied the jetpacks we were promised, this new time travel technology will probably end up so boringly mundane that we don’t even notice when they start churning it out. Instead of people in jumpsuits from 10,000 years in the future coming back to murder their ancestors, my guess is the first time we see this technology being used is when some bozo introduces the mobile phone that allows you to text yourself messages in the past to make sure you remember to pick up the milk on the way home.

Like picture messaging, no-one will see the point of it at first, but then suddenly everyone will be at it. Within weeks, the lottery will become utterly pointless as the jackpot is won on a weekly basis by 60 million people and thus pays out 5p each. On the other hand, the stock exchange will become even more chaotic as people tip themselves off on a massive scale, only to discover that if everyone’s at it such information becomes utterly redundant. Eventually a member of Parliament hits upon a wheeze to claim their additional costs allowance an infinite number of times and the universe will implode in a puff of contradiction and self-important venality.

How annoying will that be? Even if it doesn’t happen, I can just imagine my future self texting me lies just to screw me over. Bastard.

Nick Clegg’s half century: not out

Not my best ever article, but I’ve written about Clegg’s first 50 days over at Comment is Free. I’m delighted to see my Tory baiting has caused a reaction:

All the signs are there to indicate that David Cameron is likely to have a poor 2008. Gordon Brown’s remarkable meltdown has not brought Cameron the sort of poll ratings that even Neil Kinnock could take for granted in the early 1990s. The success of last October is now a distant memory. Labour and the Tory headbangers have out-maneuvered him and forced him to bore for Britain on the Lisbon treaty; an issue which steadfastly refuses to fly for him. It is becoming increasingly evident that George Osborne – Cameron’s closest ally – is woefully out of his depth in the job of Shadow Chancellor at a time when the economy is a bigger issue than ever. And fundamentally, his own parliamentary party simply defy him every time he tries championing a progressive issue, something which he does less and less often these days.

Is it time to revisit rules on lobbying Lords?

Cameron is to capitulate over Lord Oakeshott’s private members’ bill aimed at ousting peers who are resident abroad for tax purposes. The clear target of the bill, Michael Ashcroft, who is currently running a Messagespace advertising campaign to push his two latest books, has this to say about his beloved Belize on his website:
Michael Ashcroft website screenshot

Belize – “if home is where the heart is, this is my home”

Michael Ashcroft grew up in Belize after his father had been posted there by the Foreign Office.
In 1982 he revisited the country and fell in love with its people and culture for a second time.

Michael Ashcroft is now a major investor in Belize. He also funds educational charitable projects in Belize and neighbouring islands.

Between 1998 – 2000 he was the Belizean Ambassador to the United Nations. He was nominated for his knighthood by the Belizean government.

All of which is fair enough, but doesn’t exactly scream suitability for the UK legislature. I fear that Lord Ashcroft would fail Lord Tebbit’s cricket test.

But the point of my post is not (just) to make cheap shots at Ashcrofts expense. It is to question whether, in the light of this and the ongoing debate over Parliamentarians and expenses, it is time for the Lib Dems to revisit their policy banning members of the House of Lords from working for lobbying companies.

The Lords Parliamentary Party has consistently blocked these proposals on the grounds that many peers require supplementary income. Since then, two facts have emerged which undermine this argument.

First of all, the level of expenses which peers can claim for has become apparent – £37,000 tax free. Secondly, those unwilling to give up their cushy lobbying jobs have a simple option: take a long term leave of absence. If Andrew Phillips can do that, so can Tim Clement-Jones.

Should we have another go at this at the autumn party conference? In the current climate it seems to me this is one loophole we can’t afford to leave gaping.

General Synod: how Williams should break the ice

There’s still time to give Rowan Williams some advice on how to spin himself out of the mess he’s created for himself at the General Synod today. My suggestion is that he should start with something like this:

When I set out to write a speech about major religions operating their own quasi-legal systems, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

Trust me; they’ll love it.

Tooth Review: 1572 (obligatory spoiler warning)

Prog 1572Quote of the Week: “Who gains, who gains? That’s the clue Inga! Nobody kills for nothing – unless they’re a total psychopath like me, and even I like to turn a profit.” – P.J. ponders about his impersonator in Judge Dredd.

Cover: Cliff Robinson draws P.J. Maybe and Dredd.

Contents: Judge Dredd, Shakara, Kingdom, Strontium Dog and Stickleback all continue.

Review in less than 10 words: The worms turn.

Spoilers… Continue reading Tooth Review: 1572 (obligatory spoiler warning)

Rowan Williams on religious hatred: quite silly actually

Before Thursday’s brouhaha about sharia law erupted, I had already intended to read Rowan Williams’ earlier speech about religious hatred laws, following on from the praise that Chris Keating garlanded it with on Monday. I’m afraid I don’t share Chris’ enthusiasm.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Academic background or not, Rowan Williams is a politician. He is the leader of a worldwide movement which is happy to roll its sleeves up and get involved in political matters on a daily basis. He is a member of the UK’s legislative assembly. So when he says something, it matters. And when he makes a speech about religious hatred laws, at the very least he must acknowledge the role in which he and his political party (in this case, the Bishops) personally played in getting those laws onto the statute books. In particular, it should be remembered that the neutered piece of legislation we have now is not the draconian measure that the Church of England actively campaigned for and which we would now have were it not for the ineptitude of Hilary Armstrong, the anti-Parliamentary instincts of Tony Blair and arguably the intervention of another Rowan. For Williams, two years later, to make a speech justifying an Act of Parliament he didn’t actually want in its final form is utterly shameless.

In terms of his speech on religious hatred (which is equally as long but in fairness not quite as oblique as his speech on sharia), it can essentially be summed up by two statements:

The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.

and

It can reasonably be argued that a powerful or dominant religious body has every chance of putting its own case, and that one might take with a pinch of salt any claim that it was being silenced by public criticism; but the sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grates on the ear. Context is all.

These two principles are designed to guarantee what Williams refers to, both here and in other speeches as ‘argumentative democracy’ – the idea of the public realm being a marketplace of ideas where people can freely argue without fear of being shot down, moderated by restraint.

Superficially this all sounds fine. The powerful must not be allowed to drown out the powerless. The problem is, it is so subjective and his definition of ‘power’ is at best undefined, at worst to be taken to refer merely to the power of the state. It certainly is when he offers his critique of the Enlightenment – there we are asked to put it in the context of a few brave intellectuals standing up against an over-powerful church which influenced every part of public life. No supra-powerful church these days (thanks to the Enlightenment), ergo no real need to continue the Enlightenment project. Their work is done, time to move on, is essentially Williams’ argument.

But the power of the state is just one tool. There is the power of big money, something which religion continues to use around the world, from Saudi Arabia through to the US Presidential elections through to the bankrolling of UK Academies. There is also the power of violence.

Williams does not reflect on this and without wishing to sound like a neo-con this is pretty unforgiveable in the post-9/11 world where the asymmetry of conflict is now well understood (at least outside of Lambeth Palace). You don’t need to be a super-power to change the world these days, just enough people who are willing to die for your cause.

In a global world, does anyone have a legitimate claim to be a Goliath-fighting David? The brilliant film In the Valley of Elah explores this theme in the context of the Iraq conflict, showing how that metaphor can be applied and reapplied in different contexts. It’s an evocative image, and one which our global culture is in love with (from The 300 and the Seven Samurai through to Dad’s Army), but I would suggest in a world where everyone is both David and Goliath it isn’t a particularly useful foundation for law.

Ultimately, any such narrative is intensely political. Eurosceptics like to emphasise about how they are plucky Brits standing up against the immensely powerful monolithic Brussels. Nationalists, be they English, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish or Russian, flatter themselves that They have Us under their yoke. And of course it has now become a Christian tradition, each December, for people of faith to claim their celebration of Christmas is under attack from sinister secular forces.

The latter point is particularly relevant because of course Charles Sentamu, who is fond of denouncing the evils of ‘aggressive secularism‘, is the Ying to Rowan Williams’ Yang. Sentamu’s allegations are explicitly intended to limit atheist’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life – not only are his allegations about Winterval et al without foundation and highly inflammatory but he is lecturing people what they can or can’t have on their Christmas cards. Where does this fit in Williams’ picture of things? Ostensibly nowhere – the irreligious are not to have any of the rights he insists the religious should have. And if we are to believe the rest of his speech, the Church is no longer a powerful entity, at least compared to the aggressive secularist hegemony (which in reality has as much substance to it as the Elders of Zion). To not even begin to grapple with this issue, in a six thousand word essay, when his second-in-command is going around making such blood libels willy-nilly, is sinister indeed.

Williams mentions the Behtzi case, but laughably tries to have it every which way:

In the case of the bitter controversy in the Sikh community over the play Behzti in 2004, it was clear that many deeply intelligent members of the Sikh community in Britain were torn between the belief that the play would cement in the minds of audiences largely ignorant of the Sikh religion a distorting and negative set of images and the gloomy conviction that violent protest against the play would have exactly the same effect (c.f. Nash, pp. 34-6): very much a no-win situation. Once again, there is the disconnection between the firm claim of an artistic establishment that protest against oppressive systems is justifiable, even imperative (and Behzti had identified a real and too-often buried concern among Sikh women), and the counter-claim that this kind of representation of a religious culture in front of what was likely to be a fairly religiously illiterate audience would be experienced as a straightforward flexing of the muscles by a hostile, alien and resourceful power.

Or, to put it another way: Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was making valid criticisms but the hoi polloi is too stupid and ignorant to fully appreciate her argument. Therefore, on balance, her play should not have been performed.

This gets to the heart of it. Far from approving of an ‘argumentative democracy’ Williams wants to insulate the public from any argument it may not be able to fully appreciate the nuances of. The Ivory Tower of academia can have these debates but the rest of us must have it doled out in strictly vetted, bite-sized chunks. Given the events of the past 48 hours, I do hope the irony isn’t lost on anyone here. Given the enormous backlash that Williams’ speech has caused, and given his call a week earlier for people to exercise restraint, could he not be accused himself of knowingly “damaging believers’ freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society” and thus be restrained in order to “avoid the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded”? Or should such restraints only apply to anyone who happens to disagree with him? In reseaching his article I am reminded that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 would have made it an offence to stir up religious hatred if you were “reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up” if Williams’ had had his way: in a parallel universe his counterpart is currently sitting in a police cell.

Ultimately, we can’t agree who is powerful or weak any more than we can agree what is a valid criticism or not. In a global, information rich society, ideas about the powerful versus the weak are losing resonance in any case. The self-assured righteousness which religion imbues in its adherents and all too often descends into violence must be regarded as a powerful thing in itself – it doesn’t need the power of the state it had in medieval times to still cause oppression.

Block reform to get reform

I want a referendum screen shotWhat annoys me most about IWantAReferendum.com is it’s completely anti-intellectual stance and the way it presents the Lisbon Treaty as the most significant EU treaty in terms of pooling sovereignty in history. Whether you are pro or anti a referendum, that is clearly nonsense.

But I’ve banged on about the nonsense of all this in the past. What tickled me today was discovering this fantastic quote from Aromatherapist Michelle:

The EU isn’t working. We need a vote for force politicians to reform it.

I don’t know what she keeps in her aromatherapy bottles, but it must be something mind altering. Because what she has added her name to is a campaign to NOT reform the EU.

There’s an interesting debate to be had over whether Lisbon is a step forward or backwards for EU democracy. One thing I’ve noticed is that aside from muttering darkly and incoherently about loss of sovereignty and “self reforming treaties”, the Euro-sceptics appear to avoid this debate like the plague. I recommend you pop over to Unlock Democracy and read their guide. Agree with it or not, at least it is an argument about the Treaty itself rather than the staid debate over a referendum.