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May 15, 2009

You are no Parliament!

The words of Oliver Cromwell on dismissing the Rump Parliament in April 1653 seem particularly apt, especially given that some of the disasters which have befallen recently have precedents which date back to about this time. The long years of executive contempt for the primacy of Parliament and the tendency of party hierarchies to populate the House with their creatures have at last come home to roost.

The disgraceful scandals surrounding expenses in the Commons and cash for amendments in the Lords notwithstanding, the rot was already well and truly established. Twelve years of a government with a larger majority than was healthy have meant a substantial reduction in the influence of our elected representatives in the House of Commons and an increase in that of authoritarian ministers, shadowy civil servants, policy wonks, party hacks, Fleet Street editors, think tankers, and quangocrats. Supine backbenchers have voted the line on a series of utterly reprehensible laws, seemingly designed solely to hedge our existence around with endlessly-increasing strictures and regulations, pausing only occasionally when attacks of contagious conscience cause them to oppose government policy when it finally becomes so vile as to become impossible even for the most compliant and venal apparatchiks to support.

Having constantly failed to curb the government on issues such as Iraq, curtailment of civil liberties, and a host of others, MPs suddenly wonder why they are held in contempt – not only by the electorate whose interests they have so manifestly failed to serve, but by the government whose path they clear and whose excesses they accommodate. It is this contempt which has led to the recent catastrophes for the primacy of Parliament.

First came the arrest of Damian Green and the abject failure of the Speaker to stand up for rights for which Parliament had long fought. Whether or not Green should have been arrested is entirely immaterial; the fact remains that for the first time since 1642, an MP was arrested (or at least sought) for actions which were largely political. The fact that the Speaker put up so little resistance was a grave dereliction of duty, and it compares very badly with the words of his predecessor, William Lenthall, who, confronted by the King, who asked where five members of the Commons might be found so that they could be arrested, is famously quoted as having said:

May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.

This assertion of Parliamentary sovereignty has held such sway ever since that that was the last time a monarch even entered the Commons chamber, yet now, the vital rights of our elected representatives are nibbled away because the government is embarrassed, and the Speaker fails to prevent it. This is an unconscionable level of backsliding, as it suggests once more executive primacy over Parliament, as an MP’s official correspondence was seized by a load of politically naïve woodentops sent on a fishing expedition by spiteful ministers and officials.

The nadir of Parliamentary influence, however, has come with the twin scandals of MPs being caught claiming outrageous expenses funded by the taxpayer, and the much more serious matter of two Lords being recommended to be suspended for six months for allegedly agreeing to take money to propose amendments to legislation – the first suspension from the Lords since 1642. This clearly shows that not only is Parliament held in contempt by the government, but even Parliamentarians hold it in contempt. After all, it’s hardly respectful to claim dubious expenses, and to take money to try to influence legislation should really be regarded as nothing less than criminal. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the stock of politicians has never been lower? Nor that many of the historical precedents cited date back to the worst period of civil conflict this country has ever had.

Sweeping changes are urgently needed to ensure that, gravely imperfect as it is, the Parliamentary system is safeguarded so as to avoid the rise of untrammelled executive power. Single Transferable Vote-style PR is a must for a start; thus we can better reflect the views of the electorate whilst making sure that we don’t introduce a disastrous party list system. Larger constituencies are also needed, as well as shorter Parliamentary terms, so as to ensure that MPs do not become too comfortable and complacent. Parliament should probably also look into reforming MPs’ housing so that instead of paying through the nose for second homes, Parliament itself buys up houses in London and rents them to MPs who need them – if nothing else, I suspect that this would lead to a lot of MPs suddenly discovering that their constituencies are commutable after all. More short-term, the situation in the current Parliament is insupportable, and in my view, a general election should be called as soon as all expenses claims are published, so that the public can pass its verdict on the activities of people who are, in the final analysis, our employees. So the words of Cromwell, last used to evict Neville Chamberlain in 1940, once again, are apt:

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!


October 02, 2007

General Election this autumn

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7023122.stm

At risk of looking like Mystic Mogg, it appears that our illustrious leader has decided to capitalise on his favourable position in the polls seek a mandate from the electorate and call a general election this autumn (or at least he’s told the unions he’s going to). This is the first time since 1974 that a Parliament has not lasted at least four years and could set a constitutional precedent for a new PM calling an election if they take over mid-term (either that or muddy further what are already muddy waters). Although I have to say I can see why Brown is doing this given the position the Tories are in. Will the result be much different from last time I wonder.


October 01, 2007

Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est

The title of this entry, ‘knowledge is power’ (roughly translated), may sound fatuous, or even pretentious considering that it is in the original Latin used by Francis Bacon in his 1597 Meditationes Sacræ – De Hæresibus. It is, however, something which, although everyone knows the concept, seems to be little-understood in its full depth. Indeed, the largest entity in this country which seems to understand the full extent to which knowledge is power is the government. Why else would they go to such extents to gain knowledge of others and to guard so carefully knowledge of themselves?

Today, the government announced that information about ‘phone calls and text messages will be held for a year and be made available to 652 public bodies. Source. This means, in effect, that if you call someone from your mobile, for the next twelve months, a local council at the other end of the country, or the Food Standards Agency, or the Gaming Board can get information on whom you called, when, how long the call lasted, and where you were when you made the call. This is all under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which has been labelled a ‘snooper’s charter’ by Civil Liberties campaigners and allows some data collected on various activities to be given to a wide range of organisations including Job Centres and the Chief Inspector of Schools. Under this framework, various organisations including ‘phone companies and ISPs are legally compelled to collect and store data on their users’ activities for a set amount of time and to make them available to a specified list of organisations if required. A lot of people seem not to know or to care about this, but in effect, we are all under constant monitoring, and are only saved closer attention by the fact that there are so many of us that it is not possible to watch everyone all the time. Any sense of privacy you feel when using the internet or speaking on the ‘phone is essentially illusory, because your service provider is keeping a record of your activity and they are obligated to hand that record over to a host of bureaucrats if asked to do so.

This is just part of the basis for the current manifestation of what has always been a part of society, which is people watching each other. In times past, the means were less official and less sophisticated and tended to be limited to local gossip, but they essentially ensured that in most communities everyone knew everyone else’s business, and everyone else’s family scandals over the past three generations. These days, people within communities don’t know so much about each other anymore, but this void has been filled by more official, more ambitious, and better equipped snoopers acting within a legislatory framework. Whilst real privacy has always been at a premium, there is far more information held on us these days as a matter of course than has ever been held before. Part of this is because, due to technology, there is now more scope to collect, store, and search this information, and thus our actions are increasingly through more high-tech media which necessarily involve a third party who can collect information on the other two. However, people have always hated to have their private affairs intruded upon by people who have no business interfering – just look at how unpopular gossips have always been. Yet here, we have snooping on a grand scale and no one turns a hair. Why is this?

Part of this may be that people seem to have the odd notion that there is some kind of division between what happens through media of communication such as computers and telephones, and what happens in real life within the sphere of their personal perceptions. Thus people will happily post all kinds of personal details online on social networking websites etc., even though they would never in real life dream of getting up in a shopping centre with a megaphone and shouting out intimate details of their lives, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. Thus, if they are aware of all the information which is held concerning their use of the internet or ‘phones, they seem to separate this entirely from real life and become blasé about the fact that the state seems to value their privacy so little. It’s as if, in real life, the state held records on whom you had conversations with, where, and for how long, what books and newspapers you read, and what you watched on TV. Yet people either don’t know or don’t care that such intrusive surveillance is allowed.

As if this wasn’t enough, our real life movements are also watched the moment we set foot outside our houses. CCTV cameras in this country abound, to such an extent that at a rough estimate, there is one CCTV camera in this country for every 14 people. Source. This, together with the scary innovation of talking CCTV cameras (which sound suspiciously like the telescreens which appear in 1984) makes us one of the most watched societies in the world. Yet a lot of the time this is simply blithely accepted because we are told that CCTV cameras help fight crime. Yet if you think about it, the CCTV pictures you often see are on programmes like Crimewatch or on posters together with the legend ‘have you seen this man?’ Which is hardly an advert for the preventative power of CCTV. I’m sure it’s a great comfort to murder and rape victims (or at least the family in the former case), knowing that at least there’s a picture of the attack so that the assailant can be caught and convicted. It seems to be a case of how you present things as to how people react. If you say ‘you are under constant surveillance,’ people react badly, yet if you simply put up a vaguely reassuring but fundamentally misleading notice and say ‘for your safety and security, CCTV cameras are in operation at all times,’ no one pays the blindest attention.

And as if all this weren’t enough, the government wants to increase the amount of information it holds on people. The government’s proposed ID card and database would require everyone to have their DNA, and possibly fingerprints and retinal scans, held on a computer system under a number linked to the card. And we’d have to pay for the privilege. This card could then become necessary if one wants to access things such as the NHS. Now, apart from resenting this because my DNA is my DNA, the fact is that the idea of the government holding such data is incredibly worrying. Leaving aside the government’s woeful record in the area of computer systems (see the NHS’s new computer system for an example of what I’m talking about) I have a fundamental objection to the government assuming the right to hold whatever information it likes on its citizens. The most fundamental right a citizen has is the right to privacy of and power over their own lives, and when the one is limited, so is the other. We should all be free to live our lives as we wish to (subject, of course, to respecting the rights of others) and the opportunity to do this is curtailed every time the government imposes another condition merely on existing. I should be able to be me without having to have a card issued by a government and an entry in a poorly-designed database telling me so, and the information that other people need about me is far less than they can, at the moment, obtain, even without the ID database.

The government has, for a long time, been made up of people with ideas far above their station. Democracy means, or supposedly means, that those elected are the servants of those who have elected them, and should be dedicated to working in their interest rather than using the opportunity to wield power to collect all kinds of information they have no business collecting about individual citizens and then allowing it to be accessed by a myriad of local councils, quangos, government ministries, and assorted other (un-)interested parties. And the first duty of MPs, the very first, is to ensure that their constituents continue to be able to live their lives unmolested by overbearing information-collectors, paternalist technocratic bureaucrats, and anyone else with an unhealthy, voyeuristic interest in collecting and holding as much information about the private lives of other people as possible. Yet the people who are supposedly protecting us have gone over to the other side, and are actually doing to reverse of what their job should be. In a democracy, the people should have their privacy guaranteed, and the government be submitted to public scrutiny; yet in practice the reverse happens.

For a long time, governments have used a variety of tools to manipulate their public image and to prevent embarrassing things from becoming public. On one side of the coin, we have what has become known as spin. The art practised by the likes of Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, by which the government makes public carefully selected nuggets of information in a carefully chosen way (witness the way in which David Kelly’s name was released for an example). And, inextricably entwined with this, we have the Official Secrets Act, which the government can use to try to prevent people from releasing things they don’t want in the public domain. Thus, the government, can release what turns out to be a pack of lies about Iraqi weapons programmes, and at the same time prosecute (albeit unsuccessfully) a civil servant who blew the whistle on bugging at the United Nations.

What we have is a very sick political system. Everyone knows intellectually that knowledge is power, but at the moment the only organised group who seem to realise the full ramifications of this are the government, and they set about collecting as much information as possible so as to exercise power over the people. Thus, we have a situation where the power, instead of residing with the citizen, as it should in a democracy, resides with the system; the government has the power, albeit somewhat tempered by the figleaf of the Freedom of Information Act, to ensure that it can severely limit the amount of information about it which becomes known to the population in whose interests it supposedly works, and at the same time it, with the collusion of Parliament, arrogates to itself sweeping powers to snoop on that same population and then, as if that weren’t bad enough, allows an incredibly wide variety of organisations to access the information.

Possibly you won’t agree with me that all of what I have described is malign, but I find it a profoundly worrying phenomenon. I am, at heart, a social libertarian, and I strongly believe that the power of government over the actions of the citizens it serves should be as limited as possible. Thus, it goes against the very core of my principles to see the government collecting reams of information on as many aspects of its citizens’ lives as possible. The government has risen far, far above its station. Instead of the servant it has become the master, and one of the major ways in which it exercises what is fast becoming proprietary control over its citizens is to hold as much information on them as possible, as though we all somehow belonged to the state as possessions.


March 29, 2007

The symbolic failure of David Cameron's wind turbine

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6505807.stm

Apparently David Cameron’s much-heralded wind turbine has had to be removed from his roof after only a week after it was put in the wrong place. According to the Beeb, planning permission was granted only for the turbine to be attached to the chimney, but the contractors were concerned that the structure of the chimney wouldn’t be able to support the turbine. Being cynical and anti-Tory, I’m strongly tempted to see this as a metaphor for Cameron’s environmental policy as a whole; a whirling device supposed to generate power being grafted onto a structure not capable of holding it up.


March 19, 2007

New Labour – same old bollocks

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6465579.stm

Tony Blair’s announcement today that public services should be ‘truly personalised’ in order to help ‘empower’ (how I hate the way they use that word) people is vintage New Labour bollocks. As far as I can see, in common with pretty much every other policy announcement Blair has made since 1994, it is the usual combination: 50% stupid gimmicks, and 50% meaningless management-speak drivel and abuse of the English language. According to the Beeb’s report of the announcement, proposals include possible eBay style satisfaction ratings for schools and hospitals, telling patients how much a visit to their GP costs the NHS, and greater use of IT to allow parents to check up on their kids’ progress at school or to make appointments with their doctors. Now, whilst theoretically some of these may be a good idea (albeit one I would never trust the government to implement given their record in the area of IT projects in particular), it does strongly suggest that they’ve given up on the idea of actually providing high quality services, preferring instead to allow the middle classes to choose the ones which haven’t been run into the ground quite so much by the persistent interference of Whitehall. It’s also very interesting in the context of Adam Curtis’s The Trap which was broadcast yesterday which included a section on the government’s method of managing the NHS which included very interesting examples of the ways in which government targets and league tables were circumvented and ended up leading to increased bureaucracy to administer.


March 15, 2007

Student debt may be sold off

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6453499.stm

According to the Beeb, Gordon Brown is planning to sell off the right to collect at least some of the estimated £16bn students owe to the government. Why do I have visions of the debt being bought by some evil parasite like Smallweed in Bleak House? Doubtless for people who don’t pay up it’ll be bailiffs galore.


March 08, 2007

Tory shows that he's still part of 'the nasty party'

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6431005.stm

The Tory Shadow Home Affairs Spokesman Patrick Mercer has been forced to quit after he said that being called a ‘black bastard’ is a ‘normal part of army life’ for black soldiers. Now, this may or may not be true, but being true isn’t the same as being acceptable. After all, signs on guesthouses saying ‘no blacks or Irish’ used to be a ‘normal part of life;’ does that make them acceptable? Jim Crow Laws in the Deep South used to be a ‘normal part of life;’ does that make them acceptable? Once again a top Tory shows idiotic and illogical bigotry to try to argue that racial discrimination isn’t a problem that anyone should be dealing with. If what he says is true, the army should be doing its utmost to stamp such things out, not blandly dismissing them as a ‘normal part of life.’ Then, the second part of Mercer’s idiocy, moaning about ‘idle’ BME soldiers using racial abuse as a ‘cover’ would also become irrelevant. And we’re asked to put cretins like this in government.


March 01, 2007

McCain standing in Republican Primaries

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6406699.stm

According to the article linked above, John McCain is standing for the Republican nomination for President. Although apparently Rudolph Giuliani is currently ahead in the polls. This conjures the very interesting (and satisfying for a European lefty such as myself) image of conservative southerners in 2008 having to choose between Hillary Clinton (who is anathema to them) and Rudi Giuliani, a liberal Roman Catholic from the North-East. There’ll be some very interesting expressions on the faces of people going in to vote in some places, I’ll bet. :D


February 16, 2007

David Cameron

Why is it that everyone seems to think that David Cameron is the greatest thing to happen to British politics since the conception of Winston Churchill? for most of the past eighteen months we’ve been hearing about how he’s wonderful, how he’s the great white hope not just for the Tory Party, but for the nation as a whole. Surely his pronouncements today on the subject of family values are a perfect example of his general modus operandi. A slew of vacuous jeremiads about how dreadful it is that there are all these broken families combined with some vague policies, the upshot of which is that parents should be encouraged by means of tax breaks to stay together for the sake of the money. One of the worst aspects of New Labour has been its belief that no one is truly capable of taking care of themself and their family without the benign supervision of the state, and now we have Cameron effectively saying the same thing.

I know that many people have made the comparison, but Cameron really does remind me of Tony Blair before the Messiah complex really took hold; all the same elements are there: the careful management of appearance and publicity, the even more careful tendency to avoid actually making any policy decision beyond a token sigh about global warming, chocolate oranges, and children’s clothes, and the general hubbub about how Cameron is the Promised One who will lead the Tories out of the wilderness and back to their rightful place in government. Even if I were disposed to do anything other than despise the Tory party, it would still be insupportable to me to think that just as we were about finally to get rid of the Rev. Blair, we might see his heir and imitator in his place come the next election. So in my view Cameron can take his fatuous rhetoric and his pathetic inability to duck questions about his pharmaceutical past and follow Blair into oblivion.


November 08, 2006

That's 50

According to the BBC, the Democrats have won a Senate seat in Montana. If it’s accurate (and I presume it is because the Beeb must be wary of getting egg on their faces), that means the Democrats are up to 50 seats. One more and things get even worse for Bush.

Edit: again according to PM, Rumsfeld is going to resign. Unconfirmed as yet but I really hope it’s true.

Edit 2: Rummy’s departure now confirmed. Here’s wishing him a long and unhappy retirement.


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