Monthly Archives: November 2009

Comment on Clegg’s Claimed Calamitous Camaroon Coalition – Crap!

I forgot to plug my Comment is Free article which was published yesterday. In it, I give pretty short shrift to the ideas that Nick Clegg has just announced his intention to form a coalition with the Tories and that the Lib Dems should be bending over backwards to spell out their terms for a coalition of any kind:

There is no enthusiasm within the party for co-operation with the Conservative party, but working with Labour is almost as unenticing a prospect. To be seen propping up a government which has just lost the election after 13 years of office would cost the Lib Dems almost all their political capital.

For the party to put its neck on the line in this way, it would need some pretty concrete guarantees. Sunder Katwala of the Fabians has made a list of necessary policy changes that would be a good start – but thus far Labour isn’t offering any of it. The idea expressed by some other Labour supporters that the Lib Dems should be offering them some sort of blank cheque to carry on as usual on the simple calculation that the Tories would be far worse is simply laughable, and typical of the sort of pigheadedness that has got Labour into the mess it is now in.

Read it in full here.

Both Labour and the Tories keep claiming that every single idea the Lib Dems have ever had is awful and something that they would agree to over their collective dead bodies (leaving aside the ones they periodically ‘borrow’). Until that tone changes, I suggest we all take it at face value and stop worrying about coalitions – they aren’t going to happen. In that respect, it doesn’t matter what Clegg says; what matters is what Cameron and Brown are saying.

Michael Brown donation: we got lucky

So the Lib Dems won’t be handing back the £2.4m donation from 5th Avenue Partners Ltd after all. Yay.

I do hope however (against all the evidence?) that this won’t now result in large numbers of Lib Dems crowing about how the party’s actions have been vindicated and that the was never any question that the legitimacy of the donation was ever in doubt. The simple fact of the matter is that we cocked up, we got lucky and the law is deeply flawed.

Reading the case summary, it would appear that the party has been saved by the fact that Michael Brown has been found guilty of fraud. The question rested on whether 5th Avenue Partners Ltd was acting as an “agent” to siphon money from Michael Brown or his German company 5th Avenue Partners Gmbh, both of which could not legally donate directly. But because it emerged that the money came from investments made by 5th Avenue Partners Ltd’s clients – i.e. Robert Mann et al – then it is legitimate. Of course, Robert Mann and the Fraud Squad might demur from the word “legitimate”.

Now, the party had no way of knowing the extent of Michael Brown’s deception. Nor can it be denied that it went out of its way to establish whether there was anything out there to suggest Brown was not a man they should be doing business with. But the fact of the matter is the world is a big place and with the benefit of hindsight it is clear the party was looking in the wrong place.

Fundamentally, it has never been clearly established who took the decision to accept the donation. Treasurer Reg Clark resigned shortly before the first donation in circumstances that have never been made clear. The party’s federal executive was not involved, nor was the finance and administration committee. And you don’t need hindsight to tell you that accepting £2.4m from a man who comes out of nowhere, who isn’t resident in the country, whose company hasn’t yet filed its first set of accounts to Companies House and whose donation has come so late you can’t properly spend in the general election anyway, is an unacceptable risk. But then I suppose Lib Dem politicians were as goggle eyed with the glamour of the hedge funder as all other politicians at the time, and had lost all perspective. Exerting caution only makes sense if you aren’t wined and dined by city wideboys on a weekly basis.

Suffice to say, a law which lets one party off on a technicality like that, while forcing another party to repay hundreds of thousands of pounds simply because a donor dropped off the electoral roll for a couple of months, is an ass. And an Electoral Commission which takes so long to establish such technicalities has deep organisational problems as well. We need a system which doesn’t potentially force political parties to go bankrupt because of the mistakes of a couple of officials by allowing parties to get the Electoral Commission to clear large donations in advance.

And so we turn to Michael Ashcroft and Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd. Here again, the Electoral Commission have been dragging their heels for months. On the one hand, things look precarious for the Tories because, on the face of it anyway, it does not appear that Ashcroft has been defrauding any UK investors. But if the Electoral Commission have managed to conclude that 5th Avenue Partners Ltd was trading legitimately then I wouldn’t hold your breath. As for what is really going on, that’s anyone’s guess.

Note: I was a member of the Lib Dems’ Federal Executive from January 2003 until I resigned in November 2005. I was a member of the Federal Finance and Administration Committee from February 2005 until my resignation from the FE.

James Delingpole – a caricature of a rightist flat-Earther?

James Delingpole is mad as hell and he isn’t going to take it any more! He is outraged that the Times has accused the 59% of the population who don’t believe in anthropocentric global warming of being idiots. There is the small matter that the Times doesn’t actually argue this, but rather quotes from a speech by Martyn Rees, but mere facts have never stopped a swivel-eyed rightwing polemicist in the past and by jingo! it isn’t going to stop Delingpole now.

What follows is a virtual caricature of the rightwing flat-Earther argument about, well, pretty much everything. In a few short paragraphs, he manages to conflate people who agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change with “liberals” with “fascists” with “Marxists” – frankly I’m amazed he didn’t shoehorn the Freemasons, Elder Protocols and Common Purpose in for good measure. And all because a newspaper quoted a scientist making a somewhat uncharitable remark – something that a fruitbat who seems to think we can pin everything on a couple of sunspots would never do of course.

The Telegraph does seem to specialise in these swivel-eyed loons. Damian Thompson is a particularly vicious favourite of mine (if “favourite” is the right word). I was delighted to see him shortlisted for the New Humanist’s Bad Faith Awards but disappointed that he was up against Ratzinger himself. It’s no contest!

The PCC: no regulation without representation!

Baroness Buscombe managed to jolt me awake with her stupidity on the Today programme on Monday. I really do advise you to listen to her interview while it is still available because it is remarkable for its vacuity, fatuosity and disingenuity. Apparently we are to believe that it is ‘joyful’ that the Sun can breach the PCC’s own guidelines and that the PCC will only lift a finger if Gordon Brown himself complains.

It gets worse, because it turns out that Buscombe wants the PCC to regulate bloggers (hat tip: Iain Dale):

“Some of the bloggers are now creating their own ecosystems which are quite sophisticated,” Baroness Buscombe told me. “Is the reader of those blogs assuming that it’s news, and is [the blogosphere] the new newspapers? It’s a very interesting area and quite challenging.”

She said that after a review of the governance structures of the PCC, she would want the organisation to “consider” whether it should seek to extend its remit to the blogosphere, a process that would involve discussion with the press industry, the public and bloggers (who would presumably have to volunteer to come beneath the PCC’s umbrella).

A terrible idea? Well, a totally impractical one for one thing. How on earth does she expect to be able to dictate what I can or can’t put on this blog?

But wait: a thought occurs. If bloggers are to be brought under the PCC, surely we should have seats on the PCC board? And, given the fact that our combined readership is somewhat larger than the newspapers’, shouldn’t we actually have a majority of seats on that board? It seems to me that having a majority of bloggers sitting on the PCC board would almost certainly result in a better system of self-regulation than we have at present.

Perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand? Of course, the chances of the main newspaper proprietors agreeing to that must be somewhat lower than a snowball’s chances in Hell, but we can dream.

Does anyone love the London Lib Dems?

Back from my local party AGM. When I say “local” I mean of course Lewisham and North Beckenham whereas I live in Barnet. I switched my membership just over a year ago partly out of loyalty to my friends in Lewisham and partly because, as someone who is used to upping sticks every couple of years, I simply don’t feel invested locally (although I do deliver leaflets for them).

Aaaanyway, the thing I wanted to write about was the London Lib Dems. I stood as a representative for both the Federal Conference and the London Region Conference. While the places for the former was contested/all the places were filled (delete according to taste), of the ten places available for the latter, just three were filled.

So why the indifference? I would expect such ambivalence towards the London party in a place like Bromley which prides itself on its contempt of London (believe me on this; I grew up there), but Lewisham is verging on inner city. And this is a particular problem because, frankly, the last two Lib Dem campaigns for the Greater London Assembly and Mayor have been frankly lacklustre.

The London Region needs Lewisham a whole lot more than Lewisham needs London Region. Lewisham is a real up and coming area for the Lib Dems, with two constituencies a viability and a real shot at the Lewisham Mayor. If the party is serious about ever having a significant level of representation on the council, it has to integrate its London-wide work with areas like Lewisham. The London exec ought to consider this a real problem (I’m talking to you Jonathan).

Why the lack of interest? I can only speak for myself: charging £20 to attend a regional conference twice a year is ridiculous given the fact that this is on top of being expected to shell out literally hundreds of pounds each year to attend Federal Conference. And for what? As I’m now an elected rep, I may well schlep up next year, but I wouldn’t even consider it otherwise.

And yet, London is a fairly unique place precisely because it contains in it people like me who might feel they have roots in the city yet feel indifferent to the borough they live in. The London region has a real role here in mobilising a relatively youthful, footloose and fancy-free activist base which has little desire (or financial ability) to settle down into one particular area.

My advice to the London region would be to axe the conference fees – consider it an investment – and take a leading role in things like policy development and socialising. No other region has such geographical advantages and it seems criminal not to manipulate them. If in twelve months time you can’t persuade 10 Lewisham and Beckenham North members to be interested enough in London Region to attend a one-day conference twice a year, then you will have failed at a pretty basic level.

David Cameron’s vision of a McSociety

Many people will have blogged already about David Cameron’s Hugo Young lecture by now, but as I saw it being delivered live, I thought I ought to add my two-penneth.

My first observation was the eagerness that Cameron was to please his Guardianista audience. This is actually the second speech I’ve seen Cameron give in person and it was true when he delivered his speech to the Power Inquiry Conference back in 2006. Certainly he spent a significant amount of time couching what he had to say in fluffy, leftish language and he went down the usual list of name checks to keep everyone happy. That said, there was some meat in what he had to say which should trouble anyone of a left persuasion.

If the reaction to Cameron’s conference speech last month is anything to go by, there are almost certainly some out there saying that this was a speech that Clegg should have made. And in terms of some of the rhetoric, that is certainly true. Indeed, some of the rhetoric was actually borrowed from Clegg. Does this sound familiar to you?

Not far from here the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country. For every tube station along the Jubilee Line, from Westminster to the East End, Londoners living in those areas lose almost an entire year of expected life.

I’m not convinced it amounted to a convincing whole however, or that it was especially well thought out.

Income Inequality

Two of the first names he was to check were Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and indeed he went on to summarise the whole Spirit Level thesis. For a second this sounded quite exciting – a Tory government committed to reducing income inequality would be something to see. But before we could get our hopes up too high, he went and threw it all away:

We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom.

Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.

Shares of total household income by quintile group
Shares of total household income by quintile group
Dowhatnow? This simple graph from the Office of National Statistics shows clearly quite how problematic a focus on comparing the poorest incomes with the middle is. As a proportion, the incomes of the middle earners have actually gone down as a proportion over the last thirty years. True the gap between the poorest and the middlest has widened, but only because the poorest have done even worse. You could of course reverse this trend by ensuring that the poorest’s share of the national wealth started declining more slowly than the share of the middle incomers – while the top 20 per cent continued to rake it home.

The other thing you’ll see from this graph is that the reduction in the bottom 60 per cent’s share of national wealth started in 1979. Funny how all these problems that Cameron has summed up with the phrase “Broken Britain” – marriage breakdown, anti-social behaviour, etc. – all seemed to start to exacerbate around then. I suppose it is just possible that the problem was that as the middle got poorer, the poorest got poorer still, but I think it probably has something more to do with the top quintile’s incomes shooting up at everyone else’s expense. That is certainly Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis. Isn’t it funny therefore that in summing up the history of the welfare state, Cameron develops a narrative that starts in the early 30s, progresses through to the War and the founding of the welfare state, reaches 1968… and then zooms forward to 1997. Move along, nothing to see here.

I think I know where this focus on the “middle” comes from. I suspect that Cameron has been reading the same research I have been this summer which suggests that everyone seems to think they earn an average amount. By developing a policy which effectively lets off the top 40% – most of whom assume they are earning only slightly more than average and who will be scared off by talk of actual redistribution – Cameron gets to wear progressive clothes without having to promise any of the pain to the wealthy that goes along with it. It is entirely about playing into the hands of people’s prejudices and salving their consciences. It is less clear what any of it has to do with reducing poverty of social problems.

The Big State

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s equation of “big state” with “means testing”. Suffice to say, it is nonsense. If you want to get rid of means testing, you have two choices: spend more and create universal benefits or cut those benefits all together. If you do the former then you end up with a “bigger” state. If you do the latter then you shrink the safety net and make the poorest poorer – something which Cameron claims to oppose.

The tax credit system designed by Gordon Brown is a classic example of his doctrine of progressivism by stealth – and a perfect example of why this doesn’t work. The benefit to the poorest is reduced by creating an incredibly complex system and disincentives to work. From the chancellor’s point of view however it is great because it is relatively cheap.

Of course, aside from slamming these disincentives, Cameron has nothing to say about how they should be actually reformed. He wants to increase them for married couples – to bring them in line with single parents – yet surely this would just lead to more welfare dependency (and a larger state), not less? He wants to focus Sure Start on the poorest families – yet surely this suggests more means testing, not less? He wants a pupil premium, but unless he is proposing to pay for it by cutting investment in schools elsewhere, that too would suggest a bigger state. With the exception of making employment benefits and employment services dependent on payment by results, in almost every area Cameron seemed to be calling for both more means testing and more investment.

The Big Society

In the final section of his speech on the “Big Society”, the role of the state seemed to grow still further.

This section was the most intriguing. His argument was that the left want to grow the size of the state while the right want a larger and more vibrant civic society. Is that really the case though? It certainly seems to me that most of the civic republicans throughout history have been on the left, not the right. Even when Cameron talked wistfully about “the vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another” he listed “the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds” – most of which have their roots in the left and was careful not to mention rather more problematic forms of “mutual aid” such as the workhouses. Throughout the 80s and 90s the Tories were all too eager to see the co-operatives and building societies demutualised. He could also have mentioned trade unions – a system of mutual aid which the Tories have and continue to attack – and mass membership political parties – the club of which the Conservatives only joined in 1999.

In short, yet again, there is a whole narrative here that Cameron left out: that being the sustained attack of the “strong society” waged by the Tories between 1979 and 1997. Tories get terribly upset when you mention that famous quote by Margaret Thatcher, but her actions spoke louder than words. And Cameron’s failure to address this was deafening.

Cameron now recognises there is a role for the state in rebuilding that strong civic culture – and this is something I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m not so sure about what he plans to do however.

His three pronged approach lies in “identifying and working directly with the social entrepreneurs”, “engaging with community activists” and developing “a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.” None of this seems especially well thought out and sounds remarkably similar to the sort of thing Blair was saying in the late 90s. Why should we assume that Cameron’s vagueness will go on to become any more concrete than Blair’s?

What’s more, two phrases set my alarm bells ringing. The first was his suggestion that the state should “franchise” proven social programmes. After EasyBarnet we have McSociety. Can you really reduce every civic minded venture down to a manual and a uniform? Surely, by definition, these initiatives defy mass production? Plenty of organisations have attempted to spread themselves out over the years – what will bad old government be able to do that the social entrepreneurs themselves can’t?

The franchise model seems entirely inappropriate to social enterprises. It suggests a by the numbers approach when what is needed is a careful application of fairly universal organising principles to specific local circumstances. And in what way will these franchises differ from quangoes, those bete noires of the modern Conservative Party? They sound pretty quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisational to me.

The other aspect of all this that made me uncomfortable was Cameron’s vision of social engineering. Of course he didn’t use that term as it is seen as perjorative, but how else do you sum up this “nudge” theory of establishing social norms? Much of what he had to say about developing a broader culture of social engagement seemed to be focused not on creating active citizens but on creating good ones.

It is hard to see what this three week long “National Citizens’ Service” will achieve other than telling “good” 16 year olds how to behave while trying to stop the “bad” kids from sneaking off. What good is three weeks? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on getting citizenship education right in schools, from 5-18?

Ultimately, can’t we think of a better summary of the sort of stronger society we want to create than the largely tautological “responsibility, mutuality and obligation”? What about interest? What about curiosity? And can any of this be achieved without, at the heart of it, a culture rooted in egalitarianism?

Overall then, what Cameron leaves out in this speech is as interesting as what he actually says. And at the heart of what he does have to say is a profound oxymoron: stronger societies tend to be egalitarian ones precisely because that sense of “them versus us” is diminished. Yet while Cameron recognises the need for a stronger society, he cannot bring himself to embrace equality. And having denied himself a pretty crucial tool to rebuild the “broken” society, the only thing he has left seems to be yet more state intervention.

It is a pretty hollow analysis.

Is Julie Kirkbride’s resurrection thanks to her Midlands Industrial Council links?

It is quite astonishing to see Julie Kirkbride apparently announcing that she intends to restand for Bromsgrove after all, and that CCHQ is apparently actively helping her. If, as ConservativeHome contend, she is going to be subjected to an open primary (and not a misnamed open caucus) it will be an interesting contest as this will be the first time an incumbant will have been subjected to the system. It certainly has the potential to blow up in her face; it also has the potential to blow up in the party’s face. How will this no expenses rule of their’s apply when one candidate already has such an in built advantage?

As for why CCHQ have decided to be so generous to her, one has got to wonder if it has something to do with her links to the cabal behind the Midlands Industrial Council scam a few years ago. You may recall that after a lot of resistence, Kirkbride was announced the “link person” between the MIC and the Conservative Party.

The full list of the MIC’s donors have never been revealed (they were very careful to only publish a “membership” list) and it is understood to be behind such things as the Taxpayers’ Alliance (which, naturally, has it’s own well resourced West Midlands office – but not an office in one of those minor regions like Scotland where the Tories don’t have a cat in Hell’s chance presumably all money is being properly spent). What we do know is that their campaigning operation has, under Lord Ashcroft, been streamlined into the main CCHQ operation.

Win or lose, an open primary will cost the Bromsgrove Conservatives around £40,000 to run. Previous open primaries have been conducted to cleanse the party’s reputation – here the money appears to be being spent to at least give Kirkbride an attempt to cleanse her own. The party itself will be getting less out of it – Kirkbride’s continued presence will not exactly help the brand in the rest of the country. Clearly therefore, someone thinks she’s worth it. I just hope people will be asking the right questions.

Cameron’s Lisbon pledge is “grammar streaming” all over again

Do you remember “grammar streaming“? That remarkable non-policy that Cameron came up with in 2007 designed to shut down the spiralling rows over grammar school policy that had been raging throughout the summer? Cameron’s announcement about European Policy today reminded me of that prime example of ridiculousness.

Like grammar streaming it is an attempt to square a circle which a large proportion of his backbenchers, frontbenchers and grassroots are obsessed with beyond all reason, despite the fact that a compromise in this case isn’t really possible. Part of the problem is that the Tory rhetoric about Lisbon for the past four years has been so over the top that lamely muttering “never again” doesn’t begin to rectify things. If the Lisbon Treaty was as bad as they have been claiming it is then the logical course of action is to call for the UK to leave the EU. That they are not tells you everything you need to know about what they really think about how pernicious this treaty really is.

European Treaties consist of rules that we have to live with from the moment they are ratified. They are not mere events. They aren’t a kick in the balls that you feel sore about for a while but which don’t fundamentally change anything. Yet this is how the Conservatives have consistently portrayed them. Maastricht was supposed to be the treaty to usher in the European Superstate. It didn’t happen. Then we were told that the secret plan was in Nice. Didn’t happen. And so we go on, treaty after treaty. Each time the Tories confess quietly that, yes, the last one wasn’t anything like as awful as they had been making out but THIS one on the other hand… it is laughable.

Cameron’s new cast iron guarantee appears to consist of two legislative steps: first, they will pass a law asserting Parliamentary sovereignty. Second, they will amend the European Communities Act 1972 to prohibit the further “transfer of power to the EU” without a referendum.

The first one is interesting because Bill Cash attempted to introduce precisely this rule into the Lisbon Treaty bill last year. Cameron – and most of the Conservative Party – abstained. So this is another EU-turn. But they had good reason to abstain – Cash’s amendment was meaningless. Parliamentary sovereignty has always been a mythological concept, as evidenced by the fact that the executive in this country wields enormous royal prerogative powers. The Tories may now want to shave off the worst excesses of the royal prerogative, but they have shown no sign of ending them. In particular they haven’t called for the government’s treaty-making powers to be invested in Parliament. Laws such as the Treaty of Lisbon Act are really just niceties – there is nothing to stop the government from ratifying treaties without Parliament. And indeed they do in the case of less controversial treaties.

One thing you can’t do is call for Parliamentary sovereignty with one hand and then demand popular referendums to ratify EU treaties with the next. Unless, it seems, you happen to be David Cameron (to be fair, most of the Conservative Party thinks the same thing). In any case, what does this pledge mean in practice? Under Lisbon, the European Council can make all sorts of changes without going as far as agreeing another treaty as long as all the member states agree. If Cameron agrees to one of these cosy little deals will he subject it to a referendum vote, or claim that it doesn’t count because it isn’t in a treaty? And what does “transfering power to the EU” mean anyway? We have done no such thing. We’ve pooled sovereignty which is a very different thing. Once again, that appears to give him a lot of wriggle room.

What is so special about European treaties anyway? If, heaven forbid, the Copenhagen talks result in a radical global commitment to reducing carbon emissions, it will have a profound effect on UK law. We will in effect be ceding our power to set energy and environmental policy for decades to come. It will be far more profound in practice than Lisbon. Will Cameron therefore be demanding a referendum on it (I right this as someone who thinks it might not actually be a bad idea as it would force the country as a whole to contemplate the crisis we face)? What about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, due for renegotiation in the next couple of years? Is there a more profound impact on our sovereignty than security issues?

The whole thing smacks of style over substance and an attempt to buy a handful of naturally very angry people off. What I don’t understand is why it all seems to have been written on the back of a fag packet. Cameron must have known he was going to have to come up with a Plan B this summer as the opinion polls made the Irish “yes” win look increasingly likely. Yet he carried on pretending that the Lisbon Treaty was dying. The decision to promote Dan Hannan was especially surprising given the whole NHS debacle. He knew Hannan was a loose cannon and one who was causing him grief at the time. He knew Hannan would rather garotte himself than accept a U-turn on Lisbon. Yet he appointed him anyway, with predictable results.

I think Cameron will be a disastrous Prime Minister if he gets the chance: another Tony Blair but without the steel. His photo in the Guardian yesterday summed it up perfectly, something which Alastair Campbell has been mercilessly taking the mickey out of. It really is the most excrutiating photo of Cameron since That Bullingdon group shot. Here is a man who clearly puts more thought into his image than into his policies. The result is that both end up pretty laughable.

And yet, and yet… Gordon Brown is so spectacularly awful and incompetent that none of this seems to matter much. Despite the fact that UKIP will be having a field day trying to extract as much support from Eurosceptic Tories as they can on polling day, it probably won’t be enough. As with grammar streaming, the loony wing seem to have been largely bought off with this vague assortment of half promises and purple rhetoric. It certainly looks at the moment as if a sizeable chunk (by no means a majority) of the British public have made their mind up that they want Cameron as the next Prime Minister. I’m pretty sure they will shortly repent, but there doesn’t seem to be any telling them.

Andrew Hickey on drugs: half right

I’ve signally failed to blog about what has become known as Alan Johnson’s Nutt Sack. The appalling way in which this government is sliding into irrelevance – and how Her Majesty’s Opposition is always only too ready to act as an echo chamber on matters when this government is truly, spectacularly wrong, is both profoundly depressing and barely qualifies as news.

I was interested to read Andrew Hickey’s take on the affair over the weekend. On one level he is certainly right: the degree by which drugs should be prescribed or not should not be lead by science but by the harm principle. It should be up to the individual concerned to decide for themselves if they want to take a narcotic and possible harm themselves in the process – that isn’t any of the state’s business to get involved.

…at least up to a point. Where I perhaps part company with Andrew (I haven’t read all his comments I must confess) is that I think science plays a very crucial role in deciding where you draw the line between an individual making a personal choice and an addict blindly reaching out for the next fix. Just as Mill conceded that an individual should not have the “freedom” to sell themselves into slavery so we must accept that someone physically dependent on a drug is not exerting self-control. To what degree an addict is capable of making rational decisions is very much a matter for scientists to resolve.

The bottom line is, science can’t give you value-free policy and ideology-led, evidence-free policy is equally pernicious. What you need are values and principles underpinning the science. Thus a liberal drugs policy would indeed start from the harm principle but it would rely on scientists to flesh out a lot of the practicalities. Yes, a truly liberal policy would probably result in most drugs being legalised but that in itself would lead to all sorts of questions. What should the legal limit for driving under the influence of cocaine be for instance? Would you go so far as to legalise crack? Do you impose a tax to pay for the externalities and if so, how do you calculate it? What should government policy be on advertising and public health information campaigns. There are plenty of things for scientists to investigate.

In his slightly sarcastic defence of Alan Johnson, Andrew is very wrong in this respect: Nutt was offering scientific advice within the confines of the government’s own legal framework. Within those restrictions he was offering perfectly sound advice and pointing out its inherent contradictions. Johnson hasn’t been simply applying his own principles but besmirching the very principles which the government has for years claimed underpins the existing classification system.

Ultimately, modern science poses a lot of uncomfortable questions about to what extent we can be said to exert free will. We need to engage with that debate not merely wrap ourselves in Victorian philosophy and hope it will go away.

Why Nick Cohen should worry less about twitchforks and more about the media Frankenstein

Nick Cohen is up in arms about how Twitter is embracing the power of the mob and that this is bad news for freedom of speech. Ironically (at least ironic to anyone who has read Mr Cohen’s denunciations Revolutionary Communists), his old sparring partner Brendan O’Neill feels the same way.

I have to say there is a grain of truth in what they are saying. Twitter has proven itself as a useful tool for fighting the forces of darkness, but it has not yet been successfully used to actually deliver progressive ends more positively. It is a profoundly reactionary medium and while it has been dominated by the left thus far we should be prepared for the fact that this may not always be the case.

The case of Jan Moir’s deplorable column about Stephen Gately’s death is an interesting one. Personally speaking, the closest I have come to having a feeling either way about Boyzone and its alumni is resenting their cold blooded murder of Baby Can I Hold You? by Tracy Chapman, which unaccountably has still not been brought before The Hague. I was profoundly and deeply unmoved by Stephen Gately’s death in the same way that I am by all the other thousands of people who die every day. Nonetheless, Ms Moir’s article was one of the most mealy-mouthed and cowardly homophobic attacks I’ve read in a UK national newspaper and it deserved a response. I’m not entirely sure the right response however was to complain to the Press Complaint’s Commission. Any PCC which rules that the Daily Mail was not entitled to publish a piece of spiteful bile like that is not one I would want to have operating in this country, on a statutory footing or not. It is only a short hop, skip and jump from there to having David Miliband prosecute a newspaper for making allegations about Binyam Mohammed’s torture in the face of the official record. Let’s not go there.

What was very much positive was the fact that many more than 22,000 people took a stand against Ms Moir and the Mail and forced a tacit admission – if not a convincing apology – that they had behaved unacceptably. This was a triumph for common human decency. They haven’t been censored but they certainly have been censured. I can’t see how this small tactical victory in the fight against the coarsening public of discourse can be in any way reprehensible and the idea that millions of tweeters should have their freedom of expression clamped down on just so a few newspaper editors and their muckrakers can have theirs is pure self-regarding nonsense coming from the fourth estate.

Mr Cohen should be less worried about censorship and more worried about the vacility of the media in the face of a few thousand emails. Mr Cohen cited the Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand-Andrew Sachs incident. Here was an example where public opinion was genuinely divided, yet the BBC went for the path of least resistence and chose to side with those who shouted the loudest. The PCC would be equally wrong to somehow punish the Mail for publishing Ms Moir’s article (not that I’m very clear what exactly it could do). By the same token, I didn’t bother complaining to the PCC about the Telegraph’s unfounded attack on Jo Swinson (and presumably she didn’t either) because I knew they would ignore it and I could never rustle up a “mob” to force them to listen. We shouldn’t have to raise an online mob to persuade the media’s watchdog’s to do the right thing but if that’s what it takes then it is inevitable that people will feel they have to organise in that way. The solution is simple: get a better watchdog.

The biggest threat to the freedom of the media is their own failure to take a stance in defence of it and to engage in this mad rush to the bottom. If Mr Cohen thinks the problem is rooted in the fact that a few million people suddenly have a slightly louder voice than they had a few years ago, he is part of the problem.