Monthly Archives: March 2009

In defence of Eric Pickles

Longtime readers of this blog will be aware of my glowing record of defending Conservative politicians – especially Party Chairperkins. But I do think there is a danger in going overboard in criticism of Eric Pickles after his car crash performance on Thursday’s Question Time.

I do actually think that an MP with a constituency 37 miles away should be entitled to have a place to stay overnight in central London. MP’s do often work very long, very unsociable hours. Most companies that expect their staff to work in such a way do allow them to claim for overnight accomodation.

There is a danger that by concerning ourselves too much with Pickes’ lamentable performance that we end up with a more iniquitous system which would shrink the pool from which MPs are likely to be drawn. As I have written several times now, there is a very simple solution: allow MPs to buy second homes on their allowances as at present, but ensure the equity is owned by the taxpayer. That way, if they sell up the money (including any profit) goes back to us. It might give them a roof over their head but never again could it be claimed that they were simply doing it to fiddle the system. What’s more, it is already established practice for certain categories of public sector staff.

It is a very simple reform and I have yet to come across a serious argument against it. From the tax payer’s point of view it is actually better than forcing MPs to only rent property or this crazy dormitory idea that people talk about from time to time (just think of the additional cost of security). Indeed, I believe it was actually discussed by MPs themselves last year – and rejected.

This gets to the heart of the problem. The political class appears to have become incapable of reform, even if it is in their direct interest to do so – enlightened self interest has been trumped by immediate self-gratification. This is just one example, and it is linked to the cheapness with which they are prepared to sell our liberties. There is a word for that sort of thing – decadent – and throughout history we have seen what happens when a country’s elite becomes so chronically out of touch. The courts of Louis XVI and Nicholas II spring to mind.

Revolution is an idea that excites the puerile imaginations of socialists and anarchists – many of whom will be taking to the streets today and next Wednesday. The truth is though, they generally hurt the most vulnerable in society as much as the most powerful, and the insurgent political class is typically far worse than its predecessor. Fortunately, we aren’t at that point yet and there is still time to turn it around. A few more years of recession though and things might be very different.

But every time an MP puts in a preening, arrogant performance like Eric Pickles did this week, it enrages yet more people. This wasn’t so much a case of “let them eat cake” as “who ate all the cake?” If Cameron has any sense he should slap him down hard.

A Lembit Blog! Of sorts.

Thanks to the diligent detective work of Costigan Quist (something which perhaps we should draw a veil over), I can reveal that Lembit’s Daily Sport columns are now available online (Warning: NSFW).

So, given my call for him to have a blog, is this mission accomplished? Well, the very fact that I have to label it NSFW suggests that there is more work to do (if I never have to look at Jo Guest’s starry chuff hole ever again it will be too soon), and it would be nice if he didn’t have to bang on about the Daily Sports’ ‘babes’ in every other sentence. Frankly, I’m a bit sceptical that the hairy-of-palm need politicians to connect with them. They seem to be more than adequately represented on the benches of both Houses of Parliament already in my experience.

Still, at least we can now read the column now. The fact that it doesn’t include even the basics such as an RSS feed suggests that the cash-strapped Daily Sport may not be around much longer.

Why don’t I know more women in technology? [Ada Lovelace Day]

A few months ago I signed the Ada Lovelace pledge. Then, I realised I couldn’t think of anyone to write about.

10 weeks later, and with an hour before the end of the day, and I’m still struggling. As a Lib Dem of course, I might observe that many of the party’s e-innovators – Mary Reid, Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson (who despite an antipathy towards blogging has been an early adopter of everything from podcasts through to twitter – not to mention www.scraptuitionfees.com Back In The Day), have been women. But I’m not really interested in writing a piece of party propaganda.

To be fair on myself, I struggle to think of anyone “in technology” – male or female. I could name you lots of people “in social media” but I’m not entirely sure that’s quite the same thing.

Interestingly though, when I was a child I DID know lots of women in technology. My dad ran an apprentice school for the Ministry of Defence and much of my early years were spent in the Aquila Civil Service Sports and Social Club, where my parents helped run the bar and film society. I was surrounded by women in technology – both staff and apprentices. My dad would always say that one of the best feeder schools for him was the nearby girls school, Bullers Wood (years later I would go onto make friends with and have my heart broken by lots of Bullers girls – so much more interesting than the sappy Newstead girls).

When Thatcher decided to shut these apprentice schools down and make polytechnics into “universities” I can’t help but wonder if we lost something in the process. By making engineering an academic subject, have the less academic girls had their options limited to hairdressing and shop work? And can science and engineering compete with languages and English literature for the academically-minded girls? Apprenticeships used to exist as a means of escape for a lot of young people (male and female) who couldn’t bear the idea of spending another day in school. Now everything seems either school- or college-like. As such we are now talking about bringing back proper apprenticeships (as opposed to “new” apprenticeships). But unless we are prepared to pay for actual, proper apprentice schools (as opposed to schemes running out of FE colleges), will it actually cater for the evident gap in the market?

I’m totally rambling on a subject I am distinctly inexpert on. But I do wonder if, at a time when we are likely to see massive unemployment rear its ugly head once more, the time for such schools may have come again.

Finally, a brief word to the WISE – that’s Women In Science, Engineering (and Construction). WISE is a campaign aimed at promoting science and engineering to girls of school age. I am particularly endebted to them because I often use a freebie canvass bag from one of their conferences for hauling my boardgames across town. Check them out!

Jury Team: a question of transparency

I’m not obsessed with Jury Team, really I’m not. It’s just that they keep doing these … things … to provoke me.

At the time of writing, the party which claims to be more representative than the other parties on the basis that 100% of the electorate selects their candidates doesn’t have a single candidate with more than 40 votes. The party that claims to be seeking to do in the UK what Obama did in the US doesn’t seem to even have the basics right. And for a party which claims to represent “real transparency,” they seem to be anything but.

I’ve already pointed out how the laws regarding “regulated donees” appear to apply to Jury Team prospective candidates, yet when I asked them whether they are working on this basis or not, I got an odd couple of emails from “Morus of London,” who on prodding admitted his real name was “Greg” (no last name – apparently he is quite well known in politicalbetting.com circles), who explained that it was complicated and would be far quicker to talk rather than explain it all in an email. I have to admit that I’ve taken a few days to reply to his second email, but I have now done so and asked him simply to answer the following two questions:

1) Do the PPERA rules on “regulated donees” cover your prospective candidate in your view (I note that the law explicitly applies to “members” and you include “membership” as part of your £10 administration fee)? YES / NO
2) Are you appraising your prospective candidates of what you understand the legal situation to be? YES / NO

But this isn’t the only example of Jury Team being less than transparent. For all their attacks on sleaze, they explicitly state they welcome anonymous donations of £199 or less on their website. To quote:

To donate under £200 you don’t need to provide your details but we would love to know who you are so we can thank you. Please fill in your details below if you wish, or if you would prefer to remain anonymous please just click on the PayPal link and you will be taken through the form.

This is technically legal (the PPERA has a “de minimus” level under which donations are not regulated), although neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Lib Dems accept anonymous small donations via their respective websites. There is also a question here about enforcement; what is to stop someone from making 100 £199 seperate donations to Jury Team? And finally, there is a question of honesty. If they are accepting payments via PayPal, then they will know your email address so it ain’t anonymous. This of course means that technically they could see if someone were to make multiple donations via the same PayPal account. So, either they are going to enforce the law and break their promise to respect anonymity, or they will respect anonymity and potentiall break the law. Once again, they are failing to make their position clear.

I will give them one thing though. I genuinely welcome their pledge not to accept donations of more than £50,000. As I have argued previously, Nick Clegg should have got the party to practice what it preaches ages ago. With the prospect of a legal cap now disappearing over the horizon, it is time to claim the moral high ground.

UPDATE: Morus/Greg Callus has now got back to me and confirmed “yes” and “yes” to my above questions. Progress at last, but it shouldn’t have taken so many email exchanges.

The Lib Dems don’t need a blogging strategy. They need a Lembit strategy

Alex Singleton has written a wonderfully charmless little attack post on about the state of Lib Dem blogosphere (it is always nice to find an article like this has been written by someone I have already dismissed as an idiot).

Leaving aside the usual crap about the Lib Dems not standing for anything (bizarrely, he seems to think that Cameron’s Conservatives are a good example of a consistent party – clearly he has never read ConHome – in particular he clearly hasn’t read this article about the Tory’s own internet fail), one can marvel at the sheer ignorance about the subject matter in question. Describing Lib Dem Voice and Lib Dem Blogs as “rivals” is simply gigglesome. It is as if he has never come across the idea of an aggregator before (let alone the fact that Ryan Cullen is in fact the sinister puppetmaster pulling the strings behind the scenes of both websites). He cites Guido Fawkes for attacking Labour’s blog activities, yet seems to fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s real complaint. As I understand it (and I did speak to him on the topic last week), the Guido analysis is that any blogging strategy is fundamentally a waste of time because it will only reach out to the usual suspects.

I broadly agree with that, which is why I’ve never really gone in for this whole puffing about the party via my blog thing. This blog is a way for me to develop my thoughts, to mouth off and to relieve tension (a bit like wanking). Engaging in a dialogue with similarly interested individuals is a plus. Proselytising isn’t even on the radar.

There are good examples of blogging to the unconverted, but you won’t find them at the “top” of the blogosphere but rather in the long tail. Take Mary Reid for example. A great community blog with crossover appeal between political hacks and Kingston upon Thames residents. Mary’s blog works in that way because Mary gets that engagement is about more than blogging – she’s one of the party’s (indeed the UK’s) leading e-mancipators. But you won’t see her at the top of the Wikio rankings or the Total Politics league table any time soon – to do that she would have to make compromises, talking to the political hardcore at the expense of local residents. That would lead her to disengage and ultimately be self-defeating. But Alex Singleton would of course approve.

Generally speaking it is fascinating how journalists consistently fail to “get” the internet, even at its most basic. A couple of weeks ago, a PR Week journalist by the name of David Singleton (coincidence?) reported that the Lib Dems are going to hold a “bloggers’ summit” at Cowley Street on 28 March. Not so – the party is holding a coders’ summit, a far more productive exercise. And of course, there is this incessant and persistant attack on Twitter – which sounds remarkably similar in tone to the incessant and persistant attack by the mainstream media on blogging before every journo and his/her dog started blogging. The phenomenon of mainstream journalists confusing the medium for the message is one of the great mysteries of the age (perhaps it is something Charlie Brooker should investigate on his new Newswipe series).

Are the Lib Dems getting everything right with their internet strategy? Of course not. I would suggest the following:

  • The party doesn’t send out anything like enough emails and the emails it does send tend to be a bit haphazzard. I’m a bit of a social bookmarking evangelist myself, but even I would question the point in encouraging everyone on our email list to help promote the latest Nick Clegg video via Digg. By all means put Digg buttons everywhere, but every second you spend explaining it to the general public is a second you should be communicating the party’s vision and policies.
  • Every party campaign and initiative should be focussed around collecting email addresses (legally of course). Never mind Digg, we should be letting individuals forward information about our campaigns to their address books in a way that is now old hat on sites such as Avaaz.
  • With the Liberal Youth currently mid-nervous breakdown, it is time for the party to make a strategic decision about how it intends to communicate with young people. For years now, it has tended to be left for the youth wing to organise. That was fine when they were the innovators (launching scraptuitionfees.com for instance), but they’ve been bungling it for years now. Following on from Alix Mortimer’s seminal piece last week, it is probably time a group of 20-30 somethings got together and had a serious chat about an alternative that isn’t modelled around a quaint 19th century private members club but rather is a serious attempt to create a liberal grassroots movement that is has strong ties to, but ultimately independent of, the Lib Dems.

Finally, if there is to be a Lib Dem blogging strategy, then the thing it should be focussed around is building up our existing personalities’ web presence. At the start of this year, I avowed a wish to see Lembit Opik start blogging. I’m serious. Lembit’s claim that turning up on light entertainment programmes (catch him tonight on Ant and Dec) helps him reach out to people the rest of the party doesn’t reach is a perfectly sound argument but is poorly executed. Imagine what a plus it would be if he gave people who had seen him on these programmes a place to go; a website which bridged his particular obsession with celebrity and politics? Sadly, he is so steeped in denial that he will no doubt assume this constructive criticism is yet another “pernicious” attack on him.

To a degree, the same could be said about Vince, although his particular brand of personality lends itself better to helping to promote the party. But if you think the party’s success is dependent on having yet another blog to feed the obsessives, you are so wrong you ought to begin a career as a Telegraph journalist.

Calm as Hindu cows

Jonathan Calder and I have a different take on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” phenomenon. I have to admit that until I had read the Guardian article yesterday, this whole thing had passed me by. Now that I am aware, I don’t find it as charming and comforting as some of the commentators do in the piece by Jon Henley.

“Carrying on” is a much overrated concept. The fact is we can’t carry on as we have done for the past twenty, thirty years. The economic collapse was caused by people spending far too much time “keeping calm and carrying on” instead of questioning what they were doing. Climate change is a similar tragedy waiting to happen. In whose interest is all this “calm” supposed to serve?

Jonathan draws a link with the Metropolitian Police’s new anti-terror poster campaign, something which I found myself commenting on as an “expert” on LBC on Monday (I’d put a recording up here, but they’d probably sue me). Where Jonathan sees a change, I see a clear continuity – it’s just that the Met are now being rather less classically understated.

Given that we have not, as far as I’m aware, in a more vulnerable situation than we were six months ago, one has to ask why the police have suddenly come up with this campaign now. Could it, perchance, be related to this “summer of rage” stuff the Met are also pushing at the moment, or the apparent “guerilla” raids anti-globalisation protestors will be deploying during the G20 summit? Is it really about preventing terrorism or ratcheting up the sense of fear on the streets? Are the police really focusing on collecting intelligence about terrorists at the moment, or protestors?

I was shocked to learn the other day that my intern was stopped and questioned by the police under anti-terror legislation on Tuesday because she was waiting on a tube platform and, realising she was early for an appointment, decided not to get on the next train to arrive. She was left intimidated and scared. What was the point of that? Is not getting on a train really potential terrorist activity? Does it help their statistics to arbitrarily pick on white females (as opposed to the black and brown males they usually profile – as another of my colleagues can attest)? Does word getting around of a bit of arbitrary bullying like that help the Met create a heightened sense?

This sort of sneering bullying from the state seems to extend in other areas to. Even the latest Home Office campaign on the new “Policing Pledge” – which is supposed to be about how the public have a right to expect a certain level of service from the police – is being conducted in a vaguely sinister manner. On the back page of the Guardian yesterday was an advert bearing the legend “You have the right not to remain silent” (you may recall that we had the right to silence taken away from us 15 years ago by those great civil libertarians, the Conservative Party last time they were in power). Other slogans used include “We’d like to give you a good talking to” and “Anything you say may be taken down and used as evidence”. Subtext: you are all suspects, fuckers. The most striking thing about this advert was the design they used, which is an explicit homage to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” And so we have come full circle.

Jury Team – the verdict

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent this morning at the launch of Jury Team. You can read my livetweeting of the event here.

There are a few points I’d like to emphasise:

Firstly, it is now clear that Jury Team is not another Your Party. It’s strength is the simplicity of the concept. In essence, anyone can put themselves forward as long as they sign a statement declaring that they will not discriminate against people on the basis of sex, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, etc. and sign up to the “Nolan principles.” I will credit them with the fact that this is a very simple organising principle and is likely to ensure they at least clear the first hurdle. What happens after that however, will be at least interesting.

Secondly, for an organisation that has launched itself as in favour of transparency and against sleaze, they have left themselves extremely wide open. The relatively lax vetting system (compared to the average political party) will mean that it should be quite simple for a crook to get on their books and not be exposed until after they have accepted their seats. More fundamentally – and the one thing I found absolutely gobsmacking – is that they are not imposing any transparency or capping rules on individuals putting themselves up for selection at all. The election campaign itself will of course have to abide by the PPERA 2000 and relevant subsequent acts, but if you want to get to the top of the Eurocandidate list, you can spend as much as you like and accept money from anyone you like.

The implications of this is potentially huge. It means that their candidate selection process is open to the highest bidder. And it won’t even be too hard to fix by the look of things. At the moment, the most activity is currently happening in their South East selection. At the time of writing there are four candidates, the most popular of which has twelve votes. The scope for abuse is huge and the best they can hope for is that either they get ignored (which will kill the concept stone dead) or that the various mobilising forces effectively cancel each other out.

Indeed, there is a grey area as to whether this situation is already covered by legislation or not. Does a putative parliamentary candidate, for example, count as a regulated donee for instance? I would have thought they were – and in any case would be suspicious of any candidate who didn’t abide by that minimal level of transparency. But is Jury Team highlighting this to their putative candidates?

Thirdly, while the puffery about “people before party” was all well and good at the start of the launch, by the end it had started to look dangerously like groupthink. The people on stage really did seem to think there was something magical in calling yourself an “independent” which instantly connected you to the mind of the millions of people you presume to represent. By contrast, anyone with a party label was incapable of working in the national interest. I won’t seek to repeat why this is such a nonsense again here, but there was something about it that was vaguely sinister – a communitarian notion that somehow legitimate differences of interest didn’t exist in society and that anyone who didn’t agree with this was divisive and a threat to be neutralised.

This was made quite explicit by Tony Eggington, the Mayor of Mansfield. He boldly announced that two of the reforms he had advocated were the reduction of councillors (= less scrutiny for him) and turning the “divisive” multi-member wards into single member ones. As I observed yesterday, one of the things you might expect to come out of an Independents movement would be electoral reform. Not a bit of it – what was being advocated this morning was something that resembled a paean to the the Rotten Borough. In his presentation, Sir Paul Judge talked wistfully about the era before political parties, ignoring the fact that they arose because of an extension of the franchise. This doesn’t ultimately surprise me – I’ve witnessed a similar disdain for democracy and a robust, vibrant, noisy political system from independents on numerous occasions in the past.

Fundamentally, I welcome the rise of the Independents movement. It’s time we had this debate. Let’s make it easier for them still, by introducing open lists or better still the single transferable vote. After today however I am more convinced than ever that at its heart is an anti-democratic notion of communitarianism which is ultimately a threat to progress and a free and open society. Let’s face it down in the ballot box.

In defence of whips

Here we go again. Andreas Whittam-Smith has written an eye-wateringly hyperbolic piece about Jury Team, which is launching tomorrow. I plan to be at their launch and it remains to be seen how exactly they intend to organise, but when people use stock phrases like “harness the power of the internet” I tend to assume they are going to fail before they begin. Apparently we are to regard Sir Paul Judge as the UK’s Barack Obama. The anti-sleaze champion who is to turn this all around needs money, lots of it, something which he would have had £200,000 more of had he not failed in his bid to sue the Guardian for libel over the Asil Nadir affair in the mid-nineties. Apparently the old adage about he who without sin throwing the first stone, doesn’t apply if you call yourself an independent.

All of this smacks of déjà vu all over again for me, in two ways. First of all, there is the fact that the media was falling over themselves five years ago to big up YourParty, which was apparently going to set the political stage on fire. I even commssioned an article from them, which now appears to be the only online record of their strategy. Talk about history repeating as tragedy and then farce – at least they were dotcom millionaires as opposed to former Tory director generals.

But secondly, there is my experience of student and parish council politics. Seemingly very different spheres, both these battlegrounds have one thing in common: to call yourself an independent is worth real votes. For years, most of the places at the NUS top table were reserved for Labour Party membership card-carrying “independents” who would denounce Labour on the conference stage and then do the party’s bidding behind closed doors. Point this fact out to their supporters and they preferred to ignore that fact, finding the lie much easier to deal with.

In parish elections, there is a similar phenomenon. It doesn’t matter what your political agenda is, so long as you play the independent card you are at an automatic advantage. You don’t have to produce a manifesto and you do it in the certain knowledge that most of your supporters will not really be interested in the day-to-day goings on of the parish council, and so hegemonies arise of “independents” who are really only doing it for glory and low-level corruption. And then they have the cheek to lay that smear on anyone standing with a party label.

It remains to be seen how Jury Team plans to select its candidates. Whittam-Smith suggests it will be done by mobile phone primaries. Leaving aside the security implications of such a system, even in the US Congressional primaries – where the system is well established – are notable for their low participation rates. And if the party is to have no policies other than the twelve proposals it has already listed, how is this going to work with the current system for European Parliament elections? If there is a rabid rightwinger at the top of their list, am I really expected to vote for that guy in the knowledge that it might get the more reasonable person in the number two spot elected?

This example highlights the one notable thing that is absent from Jury Team’s twelve proposals, most of which are interesting: reform of the electoral system. Without reform, running an indpendents list for the Euro-elections is a nonsense, but it is also a bit of a nonsense under the first past the post system as well. Jury Team could get 20% of the votes in 2010 and not get a single MP elected; knowing that, why should people waste their time with them?

Instead of electoral reform, Jury Team propose to bring an end to the party whips. Now there is some out and out nonsense here, such as:

The only real challenge to the UK Government is now through the crossbenchers in the House of Lords who are individuals acting on the basis that they have a free vote which is not whipped by any party. The success of the Lords’ crossbenchers in enforcing better discussion of Government proposals in recent years provides very strong support in favour of allowing similar discussions and votes, unfettered by party whipping, to take place in the House of Commons. It should also be noted that the crossbenchers act as a formal group, even electing their own chair, but these structures confine themselves to administrative matters and do not direct any political policy, exactly as envisaged for the Jury Team.

Are they deliberately trying to wind me up here? It is nonsense from start to finish. The challenge in the Lords is a whipped party vote in a chamber in which no single party has overall control. The crossbenchers barely turn up enough to actually count. Indeed, if this is the model they are seeking to replicate in the House of Commons, it would be an absolute scandal. It would mean turnout amongst MPs would plummet, the government would be held to less account – not more – and yet we would continue to pay them their salary (which, under their proposal to make MPs’ pay awards independent, would mean we end up shelling out even more, as Will Howells points out).

If the party whips system did not exist, we would have to invent it. 99% of the time, the whipping system is entirely benign. It is about making sure MPs vote according to the party line so they can afford to specialise and not have to focus on the minutiae of every single debate. It is about ensuring that if an MP has to be away from the chamber at any given time, then the overall political balance in the chamber can be maintained. Occasionally, very occasionally, it can lead to strong arming and even outright violence – mainly because we have a two-party model that is rooted in the idea that the government cannot afford to ever lose a vote on the Commons floor. If we had a politically balanced House of Commons, we’d see more defeats but I doubt we’d see much more in terms of rebellions. Again, MPs are, if anything, more rebellious than Lords. Could it be that they tend to vote along the party line not because whips hold some kind of terror over them but because they perceive the system is in their long term interests?

If we didn’t have party whips, we would still have a similar system of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-mine. In place of parties would be informal relationships between individuals. The key difference will be that the conspirators will not be accountable to a common manifesto and it will be far more opaque than what we have at present. If I vote for a Labour, Tory or Lib Dem MP I have a fair idea of what I’m getting. How many people knew in 1997 that when they voted for Martin Bell they were getting an opponent of gay rights, for example?

I want Jury Team to make a real go of it, in a way that Your Party never did, not because I think it is a good idea but because I think it is a terrible one. In many respects I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love to be sitting here, in 20 years time, as an Independent MP cringing at the thought of how I bought into all that party nonsense. But the truth is I suspect it will fizzle out within twelve months, just as all similar attempts have done so – not because of an evil hegemonic political system with an agenda to stop anyone from trying something new, but because it is a fundamentally bad idea based on an exaggerated fixation on the importance of the individual over and above the need for collective action. We will see.

Rafael, the thing about golden ages is that they tend to end

Congratulations to Rafael Behr for writing what is possibly the most complacent, ahistorical article I’ve read thus far in 2009. It’s not that any of the facts he alludes to are particularly wrong, its that he completely misses the point.

Can the era we currently live in be legitimately described as a “golden age of liberty”? In as much as any era can be described as a golden age, certainly. We don’t ban plays (even if certain individuals do manage to get them shut down from time to time), we no longer reserve social opprobrium for gay people or children born out of wedlock. I can declare, here, that God does not exist and instead of being burned at the stake, receive the odd plaintive comment. Christ, you can even walk down the street with a name like “Rafael Behr” and not get punched (I would imagine).

A note of caution: the whole notion of golden ages is at odds with liberalism. It is no coincidence that fascists, religious zealots and nazis (and superhero comics fans) love to bang on about them. By contrast, if you don’t believe that utopia is either attainable or desirable, you should be sceptical that any era could be described as a golden age. It is entirely unsurprising that all the golden ages in history have one thing in common: they all came to a crashing end and were often quickly followed by what can only be described as a “dark age.”

What is particularly dumb about Behr’s article, is that two years ago you could read remarkably similarly toned articles about the economy which drew the same conclusion: we live in a golden age, the pessimists who are predicting economic doom and gloom ignore the fact that we have enjoyed economic growth for X number of years; anyway, they are middle class wankers who live in big houses and have lived off the fat of the land; what about [insert reference to token minority group here]?

Our liberty and economic security go hand in hand – just as failing democracies tend to do worse economically, failing economies find their democracy under threat. The police and media are already irresponsibly stoking up the hype about 2009 having a “summer of rage.” “British jobs for British workers” is in danger of becoming the far-right’s new rallying cry (thanks, Gordon). Behr brags about how we don’t spy on our neighbours, blithely ignoring the fact that the government actively encourages us to do so when it comes to benefit cheats. He ignores the fact that the current government agenda is not merely to store information about us on computer, but to use that data to monitor people who seem to be involved in criminal activity (regardless of the number of false positives that will throw up). Whitehall knows less about me than Tesco? Well, I don’t have a Tesco Clubcard but even if I did, Tesco wouldn’t be able to use that information for much more than to sell me more stuff, and they can’t fine me £1,000 for putting someone else’s shopping on my card. And if I am forced to register for an identity card, the Home Office will know a LOT more about me than Tescos – or even Ryanair. If Jack Straw comes back with Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill (now dropped but will almost certainly return again soon), there will be almost no information about me they won’t be able to look at.

The whole “transformational government” agenda is only really about five years old. We are at the very early stages. Already though we’ve seen an emboldened police force arresting people for taking photographs in the street and banning boardgames which could be used in an act of terrorism. We’ve seen nonsenses like Form 696 (something tells me Behr is not a bashment fan).

Behr is keen to look at the past and remark how much more free we are compared to then. What worries civil liberties campaigners is that we are headed back there and that all the progress of the last 100 years will be for nothing. Ten years ago, I remember newspapers – even the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – prepared to contemplate that cannabis prohibition isn’t working. Now the Guardian and the Independent rail against skunk. Where will we be in ten years time? Fifty? Why should we take anyone seriously who feeds us with atrocity-porn about the past yet doesn’t address that?

Behr claims to “give thanks that there is a well-mobilised artistic [note this comes first in his order of priorities], media [second] and political lobby exercising the necessary eternal vigilance” but then immediately goes out of his way to belittle them in the very next sentence “I’m glad there are intelligent, dedicated people carefully monitoring our progress down the slippery slope, demarcating in units of kilo-outrage our incremental creep towards the thick end of the wedge.” In other words, he couldn’t really give a hoot. It won’t affect you after all, will it Pastor Niemöller?