Common Values In our Classrooms (14.12.10)
Join the campaign at Liberty.
Shane Chowen on EMA (13.12.10)
Shane Chowen, vice-president of the further education wing of the NUS, writes well in the Guardian opposing the EMA cut.
It's hard to endorse the logic of the government's decision to axe the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The EMA is a payment made to students in Years 12 and 13 who are from a low-income background. The scheme aims to incentivise poorer pupils to continue in full-time education, and to provide material financial support to enable them to do so, even against the wishes of their parents.
The reason fr the cut given by the chancellor George Osborne is basically that it is an inefficient system: it does not make, he claims, a big enough impact on participation rates to justify the outlay. This is in and of itself a reasonable point to make, I suppose. But it misses a more important one, I think: if we suppose that education to age 18 is a right, it follows that fair opportunities must be provided to allow young people to actually receive that entitlement. Whether it actually achieves an increase in participation is kind of immaterial. What is important is that under the EMA, a fair opportunity currently exists for the poorest students; and if the opportunity exists, the responsibility for failing to exploit that opportunity shifts to the student. The EMA also has the nice side effect of meaningfully empowering young people by asking them to decide whether to continue study. And if they decide they do, there are clear conditions attached to the EMA (such as, showing up to your classes). It encourages personal responsibility for learning, ironically, to a far greater extent than the largely dysfunctional university sector.
The difference between the EMA issue and the university funding issue is also an important one to note. The idea that education to 18 should be a right is, I suggest, widely accepted. Scrapping the EMA makes leaving school at 16 the more profitable option and reinforces the cultural reflex, prevalent in many poorer families, that further education is an unproductive and self-indulgent option rather than an investment in a student's future. This amounts to a reduction in access for the poor which to my mind is simply incompatible with the idea of secondary education as an unqualified right. University attendance, by contrast, is not so straightforward: even if it is a "right", this right is qualified by having to get the correct grades. I do, however, agree with the left (and with Lord Browne!) that your financial background should not constitute another qualification for undergraduate study. So much the better, then, that parliament has now passed legislation that 1) increases the amount of money available to the poorest (both through the loans system and through grants and scholarships), 2) raises the thresholds for any repayments on those loans to above the national median wage, and 3) establishes a progressive tapering system to those repayments when they apply.
When it comes to education funding for the poorest, the cold hand of conservatism is as threatening as ever. But we left-wing and liberal progressives must, I think, pick our battles carefully.
IFS tuition fees assessment (9.12.10)
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has assessed government proposals on higher education funding. The document is wide-ranging, but it headline conclusion is:
By decile of graduate lifetime earnings, the Government’s proposals are more progressive than the current system or that proposed by Lord Browne. The highest earning graduates would pay more on average than both the current system and that proposed by Lord Browne, while lower earning graduates would pay back less. By decile of parental income, graduates from the poorest 30% of households would pay back less than under Lord Browne’s proposed system, but more than under the current system. While all graduates from families with incomes above this would pay more, graduates from the 6th and richest (10th) deciles of parental income would pay back the most under the proposed system.
Perhaps there are still good reasons for opposing the government proposals, but if there are, it isn't the Labour Party articulating them. Openly claiming that a graduate tax would be "fairer", given the manifest falsehood of that statement, is simply a bankrupt position (in every sense) for Labour to adopt. And Alan Johnson must know it.
Vacillation left and left (8.12.10)
Nick Clegg has copped it for supporting a rise in tuition fees after signing a pledge to do exactly the opposite. And why shouldn't he cop it? Any U-turn this brazen in politics is legitimately susceptible to ridicule. However, the important consideration when assessing a U-turn is whether it is a turn from the wrong direction to the right one, or from the right direction to the wrong one. Clearly, in the estimation of most left-wing pundits, Clegg has made the latter. You can make your own mind up. What is certain, though, is that Clegg has clearly explained that he previously thought a graduate tax to be the more just policy, but after taking a closer look at the sums, concluded that a modified system of fees and loans is the only practicable solution. You might disagree with his reasoning, and indeed with his conclusions, but he has at least given a public account of them.
Now then, what have we here?
Oh, and for goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax. We should be proud of our brave and correct decision to introduce tuition fees. Students don't pay them, graduates do, when they're earning more than £15,000 a year, at very low rates, stopped from their pay just like a graduate tax, but with the money going where it belongs: to universities rather than the Treasury.
Yes, that's shadow chancellor Alan Johnson, writing to Ed Miliband the day after the leadership contest concluded. Only last week Johnson was continuing to describe a graduate tax as "unworkable", putting him at odds with his leader's policy. And, lo and behold, today he says there is a "strong case" for a graduate tax. Pretty dramatic U-turn there, then. To be fair, he does try to convince us that this is a reasoned view:
We are now seeing how casually the variable fees system can be distorted with such damaging effects. It is in these circumstances that there is a strong case for a graduate tax, which may offer a fairer way of sharing costs between individuals and government.
But it makes no sense. Much of the existing analysis of a graduate tax model demonstrate it to be a far less fair system of funding. For example, there would be no living allowance provided by such a system, so poor students would have to fund themselves from commercial loans, and then still pay for their education through taxation. Johnson is clearly parroting a brief that he doesn't believe.
Why can't we cut the crap and actually clash about the nitty gritty of the present proposals? The vote is tomorrow, so it's probably too late. The preference for ideological posturing over reasoned policy has dragged this debate into the abyss.
Browne Report Summary (7.12.10)
I hope to find time to post in depth about the proposed reforms to higher education reform soon. In the meantime... the debate seems to be focusing on three key questions:
These are certainly the correct questions to be asking. But I wonder how many of my fellow students have actually read the proposals made by the Browne Report. (An executive summary is available.) Of course, I don't know the answers to those three questions. But based on the proposals themselves, I don't yet see a good reason to answer them in the affirmative.
Page 10 of the executive summary gives a comparison of the Report's proposals with a graduate tax model, which opposition leader Ed Miliband supports. Without even considering the broader arguments against a graduate tax, it is clear that it is unworkable. So why do Labour support it? (Well, the shadow chancellor doesn't, but never mind that for now.)
If there are problems with the Browne proposals, then modifications surely need to be made within the fees-and-loans model. Discovering those modifications means engaging in a considerably more nuanced debate than is presently taking place.
This is the record of John (5.12.10)
Jeffrey John's sermon delivered at the funeral of Colin Slee:
The papers and his detractors always portrayed Colin as an arch-Liberal, as if he were the leader of a faction obsessed with a secular agenda. It was never true, and it misses the whole point. For Colin it began and ended with God. The truth is that he was a traditional Catholic Anglican, thoroughly disciplined and orthodox in his faith, a man of profound prayer and penitence. His idea of inclusiveness was not that ‘anything goes’, but that we are all equally in need of healing, and therefore the Church must equally be a home for all. Colin welcomed people because Jesus did.
And that didn’t just mean welcoming gay people and women bishops, important as that was and is. He welcomed everybody. The first thing he did in Southwark was to take down the notice that said ‘Worship in progress – Cathedral closed’.
Here we go. One of the finest episodes of Ab Fab for the "nouveau pauvre".
Christmas cheer (4.12.10)
Far be it from me to forego a little Christmas spirit, which I gather is customary at this time of year. And so to bring to you a little seasonal cheer, dear readers, I hereby offer a six-pack of the winner's choice of inappropriately flavoured maize snacks to whosoever cometh up with the most original way to tell Charlotte Metcalf how to shut her stupid, ignorant, self-obsessed trap.
NB: Maize snacks must be available from Poundland. (thx, N)
She has previous. Oh, and part of the current article is self-plagiarised from the August one. I'm starting to wonder if Metcalf is herself made up, such does this stuff beggar belief. OMG IM IN POVERTY!!!!111 LOL JK
Woolas appeal fails (3.12.10)
Baines 4Thought (2.12.10)
If you define yourself by your victimhood, you've got a massive problem. I do not believe that Christians are a persecuted group of people in this country today. We live in a society which has what I sometimes call a "hierarchy of victimhood". That is, that sometimes people say, "Well, I'm more hurt than you, [...] and I'll get my retaliation in first." That's very debilitating.
If people feel that the job they're doing requires them to go against their Christian conscience [...] then they have a choice to make. And if you feel that what you're being asked to do is incompatible with your faith, then you shouldn't do it. But that isn't persecution. You have a choice; you can go and do something else. [...] I hardly think we're a beleagured minority. We're everywhere. Christians need to be more confident about who they are. You don't have to look at the mosque and say "how intimidating"; why not look at the church and say "how encouraging -- let's get out and do more".
Baines's contribution is an encouraging stimulus package in this global downturn of Christian wisdom. He has more on his blog. (thx N)
Slee obituary (2.12.10)
The Guardian's Stephen Bates writes a full obituary of Colin Slee, who passed away last week:
When I visited him in hospital a fortnight ago, he said wonderingly: "I have received so many get-well cards, even from my enemies." "Colin," I said, "Surely you don't have any enemies left?" No, he replied gently, he was beyond all that, and turned to discussing a book he wished to write. It would have been on the episcopacy, arguing against the appointment of bland bureaucratic types in favour of troublemakers. "Peter and Paul weren't smooth men," he said.
Faith under attack? (1.12.10)
A few quick thoughts on this story.
1. Carey's remarks consists of clichés and crude stereotypes. All that "Season's Greetings", "winter lights", stuff... I'm yet to see the evidence that these practices are widespread, or that they are new. And as for Christianity being "airbrushed out of the picture" -- convenient that. It's obviously not Carey's view that the Christian faith could be responsible for its own decline. No, it's the fault of "secularists", which is another way of saying that it's the fault of people who don't share your beliefs. This is bizarre. Should the Lib Dems complain that the history of liberalism in British politics is being undermined by all those silly Tory and Labour voters? Of course not. The Lib Dems are responsible for their own profile, practices, and beliefs, just as the church should be responsible for theirs. "By their fruits you shall know them."
2. The recent cases referenced are of very different natures:
The campaign highlights a series of cases involving Christians who have claimed discrimination.
These include Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker from London, and Shirley Chaplin, an NHS nurse from Kenn, Exeter, who both lost high-profile discrimination claims over wearing crosses at work.
Ms Chaplin lost a discrimination claim against her employers, in which she had argued the cross "ban" prevented her from expressing her religious beliefs.
Christian Concern has also highlighted the fact that Catholic adoption agencies no longer have the right to refuse gay couples as prospective adoptive parents.
And it features the case of Gary McFarlane, who was sacked as a Relate Counsellor for refusing to give sex therapy to gay couples.
The issue of wearing religious symbols at work is open for debate. Whether restrictions are legitimate depends on what version of political liberalism you subscribe to. You could take the American view (like me) that persons should be entitled to wear religious symbols on their person without any statutory restriction; or you could take the French view that public space is a space of basic political consensus, and therefore restrict said symbols. Personally, I don't see how the French model has any claim to "liberalism". Anyway, the point is -- this is a question of civil liberties, not a question of attacking the Christian faith.
3. The other issue -- ie being dismissed for refusing to carry out one your contractual duties -- is simply a non-starter. As I've said before, if your convictions prevent you from fulfilling your duties in a particular post, you need to find a new job. It is not religious discrimination to enforce contracts with employees.
Fees and funding (30.11.10)
These are my current prejudices in the university fees and funding debate.
1. There are too many people at university who are there only because it is the "next thing", or because their parents expect it, and not because they have deeply considered or self-consciously decided that university is What They Want To Do. The current system incentivises this choice by making university education inexpensive: charging tuition fees far below cost, and providing an interest-free loan for living expenses. This little jolly is currently at the expense of minimum-wage taxpayers.
2. (Speaking as a humanities student,) there is A LOT of crap research currently receiving funding out of the block grant.
Even if it is generally accepted that these prejudices are accurate (and obviously, it is not), the question of how to improve the situation is a complicated one and full of double effects. Reducing the number of useless students who shouldn't be on degrees will probably be achieved by increasing fees. But this might be at the cost of squeezing out poor people who very much want to go to university but are deterred by the financial outlay. Similarly, reducing the amount of crap research funded by the taxpayer might be at the cost of not funding good humanities research (ie, in history, politics, law, art, etc.). And whatever the shallow job-market-oriented educational principles of the Tories, society has a real stake in good humanities research.
So, I believe, the two key questions in the present debate are: 1. To what extent do the present proposals resolve these problems? and 2. To what extent do the present proposals produce unwanted, and counterproductive, double effects?
As far as student fees go, I find the coalition's defence fairly persuasive. The Lib Dems say that they examined the graduate tax and found it to be a less progressive option than the Browne proposals. This is plausible. A graduate tax would not discriminate at all on the basis of someone's background wealth. A well-designed system of fees and loans can. The loans system which is proposed is a generous one, and will allow the poorest to go to university if they want to. Of course, the loans system will not prevent children of the rich going to university on a whim, but I don't think there is any reasonable way to prevent that. It does mean that the minimum-wage taxpayer will no longer be funding these middle-class jollies, however.
As for research funding, there are more problems, I think. While I reject the knee-jerk response amongst many students and lecturers -- ie, that the "public good" of humanities research can by definition only be funded by public bodies -- the total abolition of the block grant for the humanities seems like overkill. Perhaps what would be fairer in terms of research funding would be a plan to reduce the block grant over a five or ten year period, allowing institutions to find alternative sources of funding for their research programmes in the humanities. (See comments for correction.)
Michael Walzer on global and local justice (26.11.10)
Stupid Police (26.11.10)
How can the police be so extremely stupid?
Almost as stupid is Paul Stephenson's assertion that "the game has changed" in policing protests. This is truly nonsense. The game is the same as it ever was: people have a right to protest, and the police have a right to arrest those acting outside the law. This right does not vest the police with the power to charge lawfully assembled groups of peaceful protesters. It also does not vest them with the right to deny having done so when they did, in fact, do so.
This view of protester and police rights must never be allowed to change simply on a police chief's say-so, since the rights in question are founding principles of democracy. They are not, as Stephenson seems to think, a "game".
More on Slee (25.11.10)
Stephen Bates with some commentary on Colin Slee's death:
Perhaps now, finally, the covenant wheeze is dead, killed off by the very prelates it was supposed to appease. And perhaps now the archbishop of Canterbury will return to his former instincts and appreciate that the true splitters are not the wicked liberals who warned against the covenant, but those conservatives determined get their own way and wrest Anglicanism in their reactionary direction so that it becomes something it was never meant to be. Colin Slee would have understood that and spoken fiercely against them as he so often did. Liberals in the church must today be asking who will be courageous enough to take his place.
RIP Colin Slee (25.11.10)
The Dean of Southwark Colin Slee passed away earlier today. He wrote honestly and fair-mindedly about church affairs, and we could do with much more of that. Here he is earlier this year in the Graun:
Britain's Roman Catholic hierarchy has shown a greater realisation of the gravity of the child abuse crisis than has the Vatican, to which they struggle to maintain loyalty. The outrageous equation made recently by a senior cardinal between homosexuality and paedophilia would be risible if it were not the fruit and food of bigotry and prejudice. It is within the Vatican that many of us yearn to see an awakening and realisation of the need for radical changes.
The real difficulty with the imbroglio concerning the child abuse scandals is not poor public relations, it is the Vatican's handling of the crisis, in that it fails to acknowledge a fundamental disconnection with a society that requires a deeper reformation. That is not an argument for following social trends, it is about incarnation, recognising God already at work among humanity.
In Security (24.11.10)
This BBC News article paints the U.S. airport security dilemma as one between safety and liberty. You can see why. But that argument makes statistical nonsense if the health risks of passenger exposure to X-rays are greater than the risk of death by terrorism, as Classically Liberal pointed out a while back:
Prof. Rez says that the odds "of being blown up in an airplane by a terrorists is around 1 in 30 million." His own calculations put the odds of death by being scanned with X-rays from the pornoscanner [at] 1 in 20 million. For every 1 person who would die on average from terrorism, this anti-terrorist measure would kill 1.5 people. The average number of deaths per year due to terrorism would be just under 27 people. This means the preventative measure, by causing approximately 40 deaths, gives us a net loss of life. It will kill more people than it could save. And that is assuming this one measure alone would save the lives with other security measures having zero impact.
You can argue that these deaths have a different moral status: deaths from x-rays are foreseen but unintended, while deaths from terrorism are intended. But if the object is primarily one about security of life, it is numbers that count. What that implies, of course, is that these "security" measures are not primarily about security.
Queen God (23.11.10)
Sir Humphrey Appleby once said, "The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England. God is an optional extra."
Who'd have thought that Yes Prime Minister was a satire! (thx Stuart)
Howell statement (23.11.10)
Howell School Board issued a statement reaffirming their one-day suspension of Jay McDowell. It's worth a read. The key, and manifestly correct, claim by the Board is that
The facts stand. Mr. McDowell violated Board Policy in dismissing students from his class who disagreed with him.
However, the question remains: what kind of classroom utterances should be legitimately liable to discipline from staff? McDowell may have made a wrong judgement on this occasion, but there is a risk of re-casting all kinds of speech as merely "disagreements", and thereby giving bullying, threats and intimidation a form of protection that is actually at odds with freedom of speech.
Absurd Authority (22.11.10)
Of course, any dilution of the Catholic church's stance on the use of condomns is welcome. But any such changes to doctrines that pretend to be "infallible" and "universal" really demonstrate the absurdity of delegating your moral judgements to the perceived wisdom and authority of a single, flawed, human being (ie, the Pope). And the wrecklessness with which the Catholic church officially handles the immense power that is granted to it by this perception of authority -- well, don't get me started again.
Birbalsingh defends education criticism (19.11.10)
Fiona Millar, writing about the speech I gave to the Conservative party conference, a "scathing attack on state schools", claims that I was "hired" by Michael Gove to say the things I did (Do Gove's celebrity guests know about 'dregs sifting'?, 9 November). I was not.
Was she just trying to discredit me to undermine my message? At the time of the speech I was a deputy headteacher, and I have spent year after year working 70-hour weeks for the betterment of our children for most of my adult life. And I am whistleblowing on the education system for the same reason I have always worked so hard for these kids: because it is the morally right thing to do.
If Gove had hired me, he should be firing me for doing such an appalling job of supporting his party policy. I have publicly criticised Conservative decisions on education. Just this week I was on the BBC's Daily Politics, telling the cabinet minister Francis Maude that I did not support all Conservative policies. Millar says I've been used "to bolster [Gove's] flagging flagship policies". I have never been a mouthpiece for his free schools; I have said very little about them.
This is the speech in question:
Millar's is Labour logic at its worst -- preferring to judge Birbalsingh not on her experience or on the quality of her arguments, but on the flawed, and false, idea that addressing a governing party's conference means you have "taken sides". Particularly unintelligent when one of Birbalsingh's points is that the dogmatic taking of political sides by education professionals is precisely part of the problem.
Schoolboy authorita (19.11.10)
When a 14-year-old like Graeme Taylor can speak as eloquently and moderately as this, it begs the question: why can't Christians do the same?
Taylor is responding to the suspension of teacher Jay McDowell, who ejected a student from his class for stating homophobic views. Admittedly, the legal issues are complex here, particularly in America, which has laws on "protected speech" that are different from European concepts of free speech. But the complexity needs to be acknowledged by both gay and anti-gay campaigners, because "freedom of speech" is qualified in a number of ways, even in America. I recently argued that a harm principle can legitimately be applied to certain kinds of speech, but there are other kinds of restriction, too.
For example, just because you have a legally safeguarded "freedom of speech" does not mean that this safeguard applies while you are in my house. If I dislike what you say, I am within my rights to exercise my freedom of speech by shouting you down, or to ask you to leave my property. The McDowell case therefore hinges on what kind of space a classroom is, and what kind of discretion (in the legal sense) a classroom teacher should have over that space. After all, sets of school rules are routinely established and enforced, even when they have no specific basis in law; they may indeed be contrary to generic "freedom of expression" provisions in law. For example, many schools enforce uniform clothing. Therefore, the "protected speech" argument against McDowell is not, I think, a winning one. But it is an intensely relevant one, and it should be considered seriously by gay rights campaigners who advocate any kind of restriction on speech.
As for Taylor's address to the school board: he uses his own freedom of speech to condemn homophobia and support those who challenge it. Regardless of the difficult legal status of McDowell's actions, this is something we are all able to do. It is therefore a matter of immense shame and regret that I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Christians I have ever heard speak with an integrity to match his. Perhaps if they did, they'd also be invited to sit on Ellen DeGeneres's couch.
Boaz polemic (19.11.10)
Nice polemic here from David Boaz. (Bear in mind that "liberal" in America means something different from "liberal" in the UK. In America, big-state left-wingers/socialists are "liberals", while in the UK "liberalism" means something closer to what Boaz calls "libertarianism".) (via)
Matthews loses tribunal (19.11.10)
As I predicted on Monday, Sheila Matthews lost her case against Northamptonshire County Council. She had claimed that her dismissal amounted to religious discrimination.
Concluding a two-day hearing, regional employment judge John MacMillan said she had no case against the council.
He said: "The complaints of religious discrimination fail and are dismissed.
"This case fails fairly and squarely on its facts."
He added: "In our judgment, at least from the time of the pre-hearing review, the continuation of these proceedings was plainly misconceived... they were doomed to fail.
"There is simply no factual basis for the claims."
This is good news for the rule of law.
Nuns to Bishops: Condemn Bullying, not Marriage Equality (19.11.10)
The National Coalition of American Nuns have issued the following statement:
On behalf of GLBT Catholics, their families and friends, and thoughtful Catholics across the United States, the National Coalition of American Nuns is appalled at the lack of sensitivity of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to lesbian and gay persons.
More than a month has gone by since the media broke the news about a series of gay suicides. During that time, the US Catholic Bishops failed to make a single statement regarding these tragic, preventable deaths. Not one bishop's voice was raised to condemn a culture where youths are bullied for being who God created them to be and are sometimes pushed by society's judgments to attempt suicide. Many people have accused certain segments of organized religion, including the Catholic hierarchy, of fueling these attacks and contributing to suicides.
The annual meeting in Baltimore of the US Catholic Bishops this week offered an opportunity to decry these horrendous events. Instead, the bishops have chosen to discuss "the defense of marriage," their well-funded attack on same-gender couples. Like blinded Pharisees, they fail to see that the Catholic community is embarrassed by their silence in the face of brutality and incensed by their push of a political agenda against marriage equality—all at a time when their credibility on sexual matters is at a record low.
The bishops have not learned from the Minnesota experience, where Catholics returned the anti-gay DVD's the hierarchy sent to each household in the state. The anger of Minnesota Catholics is erupting all across our country. Faithful Catholics believe their bishops should be preaching a message of concern and understanding, instead of rejection and hate.
The National Coalition of American Nuns calls on all US Catholics to rise up and say, "Enough, enough! No more discriminatory rhetoric and repressive measures from men who lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others and do not lift one finger of human kindness and compassion."
This statement from 24 members of the UCU's national executive is brainless bunkum. They urge us to "stand with those students who were arrested" during the trashing of Conservative offices last week. It is foolish to presume that all of those students are equally worthy of our solidarity. We'd need to know some details before making that kind of decision -- you know, facts like what they were arrested on suspicion of, what is the evidence against them, etc. The kind of things we have a legal system to evaluate. But lobbing a fire extinguisher off the top of a building at the people below... is that a legitimate form of "resistance"?
I don't like the insinuations one bit. "Resistance" is a deliberately stronger, or more ambiguous, term than "protest". Student protest is entirely legitimate. But vandalism, riot, and violence are not legal forms of protest and their exercise deserves no sympathy whatsoever from lecturers or students. The fact that these 24 idiots would so deliberately insinuate that such acts are legitimate is highly irresponsible, and worthy of contempt.
To its credit, the UCU has officially disowned their statement, and has described last week's criminal acts as "totally unacceptable".
Unappealing duties (15.11.10)
It's straightforward, really: if you're working in a job under the auspices of the state, you are bound by your duties as a state official. Matthews is entitled to her moral view, and she is entitled to campaign for the law to be changed in line with that view. But this cannot be done while remaining in post and refusing to conduct those duties. If you are unable, or refuse, to fulfil the duties of your post, you are liable to be dismissed. Matthews' appeal against dismissal will, therefore, fail.
Why Woolas (14.11.10)
Alasdair Palmer explains why he thinks Phil Woolas's defenders are wrong:
Are Woolas’s apologists within the Labour Party right that the whole process has all been viciously unfair? Superficially, yes. But when you realise the gravity of what he did, it’s very difficult to conclude that he’s been traduced. The judges found that, in an attempt to win the votes of “white Sun readers”, Woolas claimed that his Lib Dem opponent was cosying up to Muslims who advocated violence, to the point that he refused to condemn their violent activities – which included issuing death threats to Woolas himself. The judges stressed that he knew perfectly well that those allegations weren’t true.
(I can, however, find no given explanation for why the Torygraph has filed this article under "MPs' expenses". Perhaps a little joke about the large bill Woolas now faces to cover the court's costs.)
Clegg on welfare reform (10.11.10)
Nick Clegg writes in today's Graun, explaining his reasoning for supporting coalition welfare reform:
[The welfare system] has lost its historic mission to offer support in return for real efforts to move out of dependency. William Beveridge urged a system that offered security, but did not "stifle incentive, opportunity or responsibility". We have drifted a long way from this founding, liberal vision. The system has become a vehicle for offering cash compensation, rather than real chances of a better life.
Gordon Brown became convinced that spending more on tax credits and "lifting" people above the official poverty line were the keys to a better society. Some good was done as a result. But even those who ended up above the poverty line rarely saw real changes in their lives, or their children's life chances. Poverty plus a pound is simply not an ambitious enough goal.
[...] Let me be clear. Protecting people from loss of income is a hallmark of a civilised society. But abandoning people to their plight is an abdication of responsibility. Progressives have a big question to ask: do we judge the success of our welfare system by the number of people in it, or by the number of people helped off it and into the world of work?
We are reforming welfare to make work pay, to encourage responsibility and to change lives for the better. That's what we mean by fairness.
Is there much here for believers in social justice (there are, after all, a few such people left in the Labour party) to oppose? If so, what?
Stringing up Woolas (8.11.10)
MP for Blackley and Broughton Graham Stringer has come to the defence of Phil Woolas, claiming that Friday's judgement by the election court sets "a dangerous precedent", that there are "many grey areas" in an average election campaign, that Stringer himself had lies told about him during this year's campaign, and that Labour have "[hung] [Woolas] out to dry".
A few points. 1) The judgement does not set a precedent of any kind. First in the sense that similar judgements have been made in the past under the same Section of the same Act, although admittedly the last case to come to trial was almost a century ago. Second in the sense that this judgement establishes no new legal outcome under the Representation of the People Act. A case has simply been prosecuted under existing legislation, and a judgement made, consistent with past judgements under the Act. There is nothing "dangerous" about this, unless you think the rule of law is "dangerous" when it applies to MPs from your own party. (Now there's a thought!)
2) Many grey areas, yes. But also many shades of grey; Woolas exploited some of the darker ones.
3) Stringer had lies told about him? Well, he's as entitled as Elwyn Watkins to bring a case against his opponents. He probably chooses not to, however, because he won the seat. (Watkins lost his election battle by 100 votes.) Just because not all cases of an illegal practice are prosecuted it doesn't follow that none should be prosecuted; neither does it mean that a few of those cases are not particularly worthy of prosecution because of special circumstances pertaining to them.
4) Labour do indeed seem to have hung Woolas out to dry. It was a surprise to even us cynical critics of the Labour machine that the party leadership would disown so openly someone whom Miliband had only a few weeks earlier appointed to the shadow cabinet. Not, however, that Friday's disowning was a wrong response: it was actually a refreshing moment of moral clarity from a leadership so far lacking in it (ahem child benefit reform ahem).
Labour suspends Woolas (5.11.10)
Woolas has now also been suspended by the Labour party. The Mirror reports:
Deputy leader Harriet Harman said it was "no part of Labour's politics to try to win elections by telling lies" and the party said it would not support any appeal.
This makes Ed Miliband's decision a month ago to appoint Woolas to an immigration role in the shadow cabinet look like very bad judgement indeed; the writing really was on the wall by then.
Liberal Conspiracy also has an exclusive on what nice practices Woolas approved in government.
Woolas disqualified (5.11.10)
The court reserved judgement twice, perhaps just for the fun of announcing its verdict on the Fifth of November. Anyway, Phil Woolas has been found guilty of knowingly making false statements about his opponent, Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins, under Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act. It was the first case to be brought under that law for 99 years.
Woolas is automatically disqualified from office and is therefore no longer a sitting MP. CORRECTION: it turns out there is official confusion about how exactly the disqualification takes place. The Guardian reports:
The almost unprecedented ruling threw the Commons authorities into turmoil about the legal status of the ex-Home Office minister. Asked whether the ruling meant an automatic removal of Woolas from office, an official said: "The house's official line is that the Speaker will be making a statement to the house on Monday and until then the house will not be making further comment."
It's understood that the parliamentary authorities will liaise with the courts this weekend to clarify the legal process.
It looks like the decision rests with the Speaker of the House, who is able to choose either to await Woolas's appeal before calling a by-election, or to disqualify him immediately. Surely the election for Oldham and Saddleworth must be re-run in any case. The verdict also means Woolas is disabled from standing for election for at least three years. Although Labour will almost certainly win a by-election, it will thankfully be with a new candidate.
Woolas has responded by saying that this decision will "chill political speech". He is wrong. He was not on trial for making inflammatory statements during the election campaign, though he has been criticised by many for doing so. Like any other candidate, he is quite within the law in making inflammatory statements. What is outside the law is making untrue statements about your opponent, and that is the offence that he has been found guilty of.
Woolas is here implying that the deliberate telling of lies about your electoral opponent forms a legitimate part of political debate. If Woolas really believes this, it's a blessed relief for our democracy that he's been barred from office. I'm all for heated political debate, but the tactics that Woolas has been proved in court to have followed are simply inadmissible to it.
Mr Benn Goes To Work (4.11.10)
"Whether in a book, or on television, Mr Benn's adventures take on a similar pattern. Mr Benn, a man wearing a black suit and bowler hat who never seems to go to work, leaves his house at 52 Festive Road and visits a fancy-dress costume shop where he is invited by the moustachioed, fez-wearing shopkeeper to try on a particular outfit. He leaves the shop through a magic door at the back of the changing room and enters a world appropriate to his costume, where he has an adventure (which usually contains a moral) before the shopkeeper re-appears to lead him back to the changing room, and the story comes to an end."
— Wikipedia article on Mr Benn (children's cartoon)
Where does one start? Bishop Wallace Benn says:
Speaking at the Reform conference of conservative Anglicans in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, the bishop said: "I'm about to use an analogy, and I use it quite deliberately and carefully.
"I feel very much increasingly that we're in January of 1939.
"What we must not do is create a phoney war, but we need to be aware that there is real serious warfare just around the corner."
Okay, "deliberately and carefully" -- so no need to give him the benefit of the doubt about being "misunderstood", which is a usual wont of the egregiously inflammatory.
"Real serious warfare just around the corner" -- well, there was real serious warfare just around the corner in 1939. You know, actual warfare, with guns and tanks and bombs and death and mutilation and good and evil and stuff. I imagine the people who had to live through those days, when Europe was plunged into a deep moral darkness, might take some offence at a parallel being drawn with a minor diplomatic dispute about who's allowed to be a bishop in the Church of England.
And then there's the slew of other reprehensible innuendos that Benn imports with these truly idiotic comments. You know, like suggesting that those who favour women's equality in the Church of England are somehow equivalent in moral status to the Nazi foe; or like suggesting that those who favour the traditional male hierarchy are fighting a "war" similar in moral scope and significance to the allies who took on an unprecedented machine of racist tyranny and genocide; or like suggesting that, simply because you disagree with your fellow Christians on a matter of church policy, warfare is an appropriate attitude with which to meet them; or like suggesting that the decades-long debate about the issue of women's ordination, and the democratic procedures by which women's ordination has advanced in the Church, are events equal in their illegitimacy to Hitler's tyrannical and totalitarian rise to power.
In other words: exactly what world does Mr Benn inhabit?
None of which is to say that the issue of women's ordination is not worthy of debate. By allowing such a debate, important questions about what it means to be a member of the Christian faith are being worked through, slowly but surely, by the Church of England. But the offensive sentiments of Mr Benn have no place in this conversation.
Higher punishment (3.11.10)
A while ago I criticised our cultural tendency to bay for blood when a politician falls short of our highest moral standards in the conduct their personal lives. Politicians are as fallible as any of us, and the idea that they should resign as a matter of routine when succumbing to human fallibilities that we all share is, I suggested, unfair.
This week a kind of converse issue has surfaced. Roshonara Choudhry was today sentenced for the attempted murder of Labour MP Stephen Timms in May. She stabbed him at a constituency surgery in revenge for the fact that he voted for the Iraq war. What I am wondering is: should the attempted murder of an elected politician be treated in the same way as the attempted murder of any other individual? My intuition is to answer this question in the negative, but I am interested in what other people's intuitions are. Why is this my intuition? Attempted murder of any person is a serious violation of that person's rights to life and bodily integrity. But how is this different when the victim is an elected politician? I suppose it's something about the fact that what is attacked is not only the person, but also the democratic will that s/he represents; it is an attack not only on the body and life of that individual, but on the whole apparatus of political legitimacy and accountability that we rightly hold sacred in the UK. Life imprisonment for this kind of crime would not, it seems to me, be a disproportionate punishment, and a fifteen year minimum term seems positively lenient.
PRRI poll (30.10.10)
Research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that
Two out of three Americans believe gay people commit suicide at least partly because of messages coming out of churches and other places of worship, a survey released Thursday found.
More than four out of 10 Americans say the message coming out of churches about gay people is negative, and about the same number say those messages contribute "a lot" to negative perceptions of gay and lesbian people.
Catholics were the most critical of their own churches' messages on homosexuality, while white evangelical Christians gave their churches the highest grades, the survey found.
As a churchgoer I find this state of affairs shameful. And yet even in the sober, tea-soaked cloisters of the Church of England, Christians cloak themselves in silence and indifference dressed up as "tolerance" or "unity" (that'll be unity after the Soviet model, then) -- Rowan Williams being one of the setters of this pathetic trend.
Bagehot on Johnson (29.10.10)
Excellent Bagehot article in the Economist this week about the shadow chancellor Alan Johnson, arguing that his most challenging task is to restore Labour's credibility on managing the economy:
Like many political autodidacts, Mr Johnson began by reading Karl Marx. But he ended up on the right wing of the Labour Party. In 1994 he was the only major union leader to support Tony Blair's plan to rewrite Clause Four of Labour's constitution, which committed the party to national ownership of industry. And now, give or take a couple of relative unknowns, he is the most centrist member of Labour's shadow cabinet. [...]
There is an even bigger challenge facing Mr Johnson. Labour has spent months deploring the injustice of the cuts. “Fairness” and the plight of the “squeezed middle” are tirelessly invoked. The trouble is, voters have never doubted that Labour’s heart is in the right place; it has always been trusted to be more mindful of the poor than the Conservatives. Its problem is competence. Without restoring its fiscal and economic credibility, the party will not be heard on anything else.
Mr Johnson’s almost catatonically laid-back style should help check the rage against cuts that, on the Labour benches and in the left-leaning media, is at risk of becoming unhinged. But he will need to do more. When Gordon Brown was shadow chancellor in the 1990s, he toiled to win Labour a reputation for competence. The City was schmoozed assiduously, new fiscal rules were announced, colleagues who made uncosted spending pledges were not so much scolded as scalded.
A contemporary credibility strategy would have to look different. Mr Johnson could declare that it was wrong for the previous Labour government to go into a recession running a deficit. He could design updated fiscal rules, this time policed by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. He could outflank the coalition on waste. Some of this would be hard for his party to swallow. But the polls show that David Cameron and Mr Osborne are far more trusted to run the economy than him and Mr Miliband. Until that changes, Labour’s prospects are bleak.
One way in which Labour could start to rebuild its credibility is by listening to what the public actually thinks about welfare reform, and then adopting a more reasoned attitude to the present government proposals.
Offence and Intent (29.10.10)
Further to my post the other day, here's an example of "harmful speech", ie, "speech that is intended to cause or threaten psychological or physical intimidation or harm". What made Coss's speech (or in this case, writing) legally actionable was the intention to cause psychological distress, not the fact that what he wrote was "offensive" on someone's definition. In this case, freedom of speech is still seen to rest on the principle of harm, not on the principle that obscenity or offence should be restricted per se by the law. (Though we hope that it is routinely limited by the social conventions of a civilized society.)
Improving child benefit reform (29.10.10)
I've previously ranted at some length about why cutting child benefit for the top 15% of earners is a thoroughly progressive policy. But the way the government currently plans to implement this cut increasingly looks impractical. For a start, there is a well-documented anomaly that means some households earning over £88k will still receive child benefit, while some households earning £45k will not. This anomaly exists because child benefit is currently paid to a single nominated carer (usually the mother or father), meaning that eligibility will be calculated upon that person's income as an individual, not upon household income.
This is a problem. It means that, while the top 15% of individual earners are losing child benefit, it is not the top-earning 15% of households that lose the benefit: some in the top-earning 15% of households will still receive the full benefit under present plans, while some outside of the top-earning 15% of households will not. Therefore, people are right to say the policy is unfair, although it is still more progressive than the current situation.
The government's current plan to implement the policy also involves writing to all 4 million higher rate tax payers and asking them to declare whether they or their partner receives child benefit. This is, in itself, an expensive and cumbersome exercise that somewhat undermines the claim that this is primarily a money-saving exercise rather than an ideological move (although I personally favour an ideology stating that higher-rate tax payers should not receive benefits; and to say the least, it seems strangely self-defeating that the Labour party under Ed Miliband does not favour such an ideology).
So here's a solution eliminating both the anomaly I outlined and the clumsy writing-to-4-million-people exercise: split child benefit in half, and pay it to both parents. If there is one higher-rate tax payer and one non-higher-rate tax payer in a household, they will receive, as a household, 50% child benefit; if there are two non-higher-rate tax payers they will receive, as a household, 100% child benefit; and if there are two higher-rate tax payers, they will receive, as a household, no child benefit. It won't make the system totally fair, since it would not be directly derived from an absolute measure of household income, but it would be an improvement. To make the system totally fair, the only answer is household means-testing.
More Liberty (26.10.10)
Liberty have issued a further press release on the "illegal" Birmingham CCTV cameras.
Levinas on discourse and the State (26.10.10)
Does not the coherent discourse [...] owe its coherence to the State, which violently excludes subversive discourse?
— Levinas, Otherwise than Being 170
This struck me following yesterday's post on freedom of speech.
Rowan Williams on offence and "traditional values" (25.10.10)
The recent prominence of suiciding gay teens in the States (see previously: 1, 2, 3) has got me thinking again about the question of offence, and more specifically, about the right to offend. I have previously defended a hard libertarian line on the right to give offence. However, the recent limited public discussion around these issues reminded me of an excellent article by Rowan Williams in the Times Higher Education Supplement from 2006. At the time he was addressing the question of university Christian Unions holding and promoting "traditional values", and the problems this was raising for university administration. (There was around 2006 a small spate of student unions disaffiliating their Christian Unions for being "offensive".) Allow me to excerpt (at some length) both the beginning and end of his article:
What is still puzzling about the debate over Christian unions in some colleges and universities being refused recognition by student unions is the underlying assumption that seems to be at work. It's as if these student unions are saying that disagreement itself is disturbing - that having different convictions is so violently disruptive that no open exchange can be allowed. To avoid conflict and offence, there must be no possibility of certain views surfacing in the public sphere.
What this does is to focus our minds on the whole - sensitive - question of "offence". Are there views whose expression is automatically so hurtful to some that they have to be restricted for the sake of general good order and justice? Well, we legislate on that basis, certainly, where racism or holocaust denial or similar matters are concerned. Talking in a way that denies the human dignity of others - by racist abuse, by labelling Jewish survivors of the Shoah as liars - is outlawed. Such views are unjust: they place people at a disadvantage and deny due respect. And we quite rightly regard language abusing or dehumanising homosexual people in the same light: the language of contempt and disgust is not admissible. We recognise the reality and the atrocity of hate crimes in this context as in others, and we recognise that hateful speech is close enough to hateful action for it to deserve sanctions against it.
[...] The danger in issuing sanctions against a body whose views you disapprove of is that it looks like a fear of open argument. If disagreement is to be silenced because offence may be caused, that is not good for intellectual life; it personalises and "psychologises" all conflict of ideas and denies the possibility of appropriate detachment in debating issues. As I said earlier, there is such a thing as offence that is and should be legally actionable, offence that so undermines basic human respect that it in effect denies a person's or a group's dignity and puts them materially at risk. But a moral challenge to someone on the grounds of their choices is a tribute to human dignity: if I challenge what you do, I take you seriously as a moral agent, a free person whose choices matter, whether they are about sex, money or whether to take a job in the MoD.
A good institution of higher education is one in which students learn that their questions are not everyone's questions, and their answers are not everyone's answers. Simply in the fact of being alongside people who are following other academic disciplines, you learn that different people want to know different sorts of thing. You learn that your world is not the obviously right and true one just because you say it is. Whatever convictions you emerge with will have been tested by this critical exposure to other ways of seeing and other sorts of investigation. It would be very bad for such a climate if the idea were allowed to gain ground that a student union could be an arbiter of publicly acceptable belief, saying "yes" or "no" to this or that position. All very well when exercised in "liberal" causes, you may think; but students are as volatile as anyone else and as susceptible to manipulation: what happens if other views become dominant?
So this is not quite a storm in a teacup, nor is it simply about anti-religious prejudice looking for a soft target. It touches some basic political questions as well as raising issues about the ethics of education itself. No doubt some Christian unions might do well to undertake a little hard self-examination about whether their language is vulnerable to proper challenge; they may need to affirm more clearly and credibly the distinction between declaring behaviour unacceptable and in effect passing judgment on a whole category of persons. But that does not alter the fundamental point about freedom of association. The integrity of the whole educational process in a democracy depends on getting this right, and it should not be obscured by hasty and superficial reactions to what are regarded as unacceptable opinions by the fashion of the day.
Williams is right that this cuts to the heart of some serious questions in political theory about what we could call "harmful speech". Here I'd like briefly to defend a more physicalist concept of harm than Wiliams, and then consider what this might mean for the recent events in the USA.
Williams is also right to note that we typically deem certain kinds of speech legally actionable. But he defends really quite a broad notion of harm here, including "racism" (without unpacking exactly what he means), "holocaust denial", "talking [...] that denies human dignity" (again, without defining "human dignity"), "racist abuse", "labelling [holocaust survivors] as liars", "language abusing or dehumanising homosexual people". He sums up his notion of harmful speech by saying "the language of contempt and disgust is not admissible".
I think there is a problem with such a broad definition of harm, even if the law in the UK were to prohibit all the things he says it does (and, in fact, it does not). The problem is not hard to see. Banning "racist" speech, for example, creates a whole host of practical and political problems (as I have said before: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). This is not to say, however, that the things Williams lists are not morally wrong; only that they should not necessarily be legally prohibited.
What principle should define "harmful speech", then? The conventional liberal/libertarian view, to which I subscribe, is physical harm. Classical liberal philosophers Humboldt and Locke subscibe to harm principles resembling the famous one in J.S. Mill's On Liberty:
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
As science and society advanced over the last two centuries, the reality of psychological and emotional harm made the definition of harm more difficult. But do we need to go as far as Williams does? Could we not articulate a conceptually clearer harm principle that recognises human psychology?
The suicides in the States have obtained some prominence, I think, because they really do illustrate the importance of understanding the principle that determines where the threshold between legally permissible speech and legally impermissible speech lies. Much has been said about the "bullying" that led up to some of the suicides. Suppose by bullying we mean something like "speech that is intended to cause or threaten psychological or physical intimidation or harm". (A bit cumbersome, but I think it basically sums it up.) Would that not also be a reasonable definition for "harmful speech", ie, legally impermissible speech?
This distinction between harmful and non-harmful speech illustrates the importance of how things are said. I can express and advocate my "traditional values" in a way that is either harmful or non-harmful depending on how I express myself. So on the one hand, a conservative Christian group in the USA which delights in rallies proclaiming "DEATH TO FAGS" could well be judged legally impermissible on my definition; while on the other hand, a different but equally conservative Christian group that participates in public debate by saying "We believe that homosexuality is an abomination and deemed by God to be worthy of eternal damnation" should not, on my definition, be subject to legal sanction (though of course, they should be subject to the loudest possible rebuttals from liberal Christians and anyone who cares about safeguarding human rights).
Therefore, Rowan Williams' argument, I believe, ultimately misses the point. It is not the right to promote traditional values that needs explaining and defending, but rather the right to speak in a way that promotes views that are offensive but nevertheless non-harmful on my definition. The definition of harm that is latent in Williams' article is actually slightly self-contradictory: the "traditional values" which he defends the right to hold are precisely ones that might be outlawed under restrictions governing "racist" or "homophobic" speech.
Social Market Foundation on working tax credits (25.10.10)
Finally a bit of critique from the left that is focused enough to be worth listening to:
Parents will find work less financially rewarding following the Comprehensive Spending Review says the Social Market Foundation.
The decision to freeze all elements of the Working Tax Credit for three years and reduce the maximum level of money given to help pay for childcare support available to working parents will mean that low- and middle income working families will lose out. The SMF's calculations suggest a family with two or more children could lose up to £36.80 per week or up to £24.30 per week for one child.
Commenting, Director of the SMF Ian Mulheirn said:
"The Government has made a fanfare of its plans to make workpay. But freezing Working Tax Credits and reducing financial support for childcare will see many low and middle income working parents substantially worse off at the end of each month. This doesn't fit with the Government's rhetoric. Working Tax Credit was introduced to make it more financially rewarding to return to work. For parents on modest incomes this will be a major blow to their incentives to work."
* Childcare support through the tax credits system currently reimburses working parents for 80% of childcare costs, up to a maximum of £175 per week for one child and £300 per week for two or more children. The spending review announces that this proportion will be reduced to 70%.
* The spending review announces that the Working Tax Credit will be frozen for three years. The maximum award is currently £4,600 per year.
The SMF are right. It makes no sense to be reducing work incentives for those on low incomes. This is clearly going to be a battle of wills between Iain Duncan-Smith and the Treasury.
Labour lists (21.10.10)
I'm still reading through the Comprehensive Spending Review PDF and will write at some length about it in due course. But, 24 hours after the Review was presented to the Commons, am I the only one who gets the impression Labour are really struggling to respond to it? Miliband's performance yesterday at PMQs was truly dismal; he failed to sustain any convincing line of attack on the government's spending plans, and came across (again) as a petulant schoolboy with no real grasp of the issues. Even the Labour-aligned blog Left Foot Forward, which is free to loose its tongue, has been remarkably quiet on issues specifically related to the CSR, with only two posts directly dealing with the report so far. One of those posts queries the conceptual framework of the CSR's impact assessment. The point the authors make is, I think, valid but incomplete, and I'll return to it another time.
The weakness of the response from the opposition is troubling. However well the spending review has been conducted, there must remain many questions about the direct impact of cuts on the poor. It would be good for the country to hear more of a debate on these issues, but sadly Miliband has opted to go for the "squeezed middle" rubbish instead. This cynical reasoning from Labour has even led the shadow chancellor Alan Johnson to rule out further increases in personal taxation. It seems to me a modest rise in the basic rate of income tax, combined with the rises that are already planned for the tax-free personal allowance, would be a sensible and progressive way of reducing the burden on the poor. Yet Labour are resisting such common-sense alternatives in the hope of mopping up some middle-income disenchantment. It's stomach-churning stuff.
Liberals Gone Snoopin' (21.10.10)
The coalition government is backtracking on one of its key commitments on civil liberties. The Strategic Defence and Security Review includes the following:
We will introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework.
This programme is required to keep up with changing technology and to maintain capabilities that are vital to the work these agencies do to protect the public.
Communications data provides evidence in court to secure convictions of those engaged in activities that cause serious harm. It has played a role in every major Security Service counterterrorism operation and in 95 per cent of all serious organised crime investigations.
We will legislate to put in place the necessary regulations and safeguards to ensure that our response to this technology challenge is compatible with the Government’s approach to information storage and civil liberties.
Liberty and No2ID are on hand:
But Isabella Sankey, director of policy at Liberty, said: "One of the early and welcome promises of the new Government was to ‘end the blanket storage of internet and email records’.
"Any move to amass more of our sensitive data and increase powers for processing would amount to a significant U-turn. The terrifying ambitions of a group of senior Whitehall technocrats must not trump the personal privacy of law abiding Britons.”
Guy Herbert, general secretary of the No2ID campaign group, said: "We should not be surprised that the interests of bureaucratic empires outrank liberty.
"It is disappointing that the new ministers seem to be continuing their predecessors' tradition of credulousness."
It certainly is disappointing. It seems the civil and security services have already overpowered the liberal elements in government. Only widespread public opposition has any chance of changing these most illiberal of government practices.
Denton Rail (21.10.10)
There was me earnestly searching for trains to Denton tomorrow morning. Unable to find any services, I did some research and found out that
Denton railway station is a station in Denton, Greater Manchester, on the Stockport-Stalybridge line, famous for having one train a week in one direction only (currently calling on Fridays at 09:31), christened the "Denton Flyer". This means it is technically still open.
Looks like I'll have to go by bike, then.
Equally accountable (19.10.10)
Watch out, there's more Stockholm pseudo-feminism about: this time, bizarrely, from a CPS lawyer prosecuting Tracey Dawber, who was yesterday found guilty of sexually assaulting a baby:
Ann Reddrop, the Crown Prosecution Service lawyer who dealt with all the cases, said: "Colin Blanchard turned out to be an evil man who controlled four women in one of the most sickening paedophile rings this country has seen.
"He encouraged these women to take and share ever more horrific images of the sexual abuse of children.
"As if that was not bad enough, he encouraged them to physically abuse children to produce those pictures.
"In the case of Vanessa George, this led to a hideous betrayal of trust of those parents who relied on her to look after their children at the nursery where she worked.
"She showed a complete disregard for the lives of the victims and their families, all of whom have been left devastated by these crimes.
We don't need to dispute the fact that Blanchard "encouraged" the women to maintain that this perspective on the woman's crime is skewed. Does the fact that Blanchard encouraged Dawber materially change the choice she was faced with, ie, either to assault or not-assault the children in question? If I encourage you to steal a chocolate bar, does that mean you choose any less freely when you do, in fact, steal the chocolate bar? And does my encouragement in any measure reduce your accountability for your actions? Of course not. It merely compounds my responsibility for my actions.
Reddrop's insinuations here perpetuate an old-fashioned view of women as passive recipients of male initiatives, second-class moral citizens especially vulnerable to "being led", less capable than men of free or rational action. Note that, according to Reddrop, it was not Vanessa George's choice-to-abuse that "led" to the "hideous betrayal of trust", but rather Blanchard's encouragement.
Feminism is a fight for equality. In the context of a society that has won the victory of women's liberation, that means recognising that women and men are equal actors in the landscape of human morality. Child abuse, which is first and foremost abuse of a position of power, is a crime of which both men and women in such positions are equally capable.
Odd, Odder, Oddie (19.10.10)
You'd be hard pressed to find a better example of bad-faith argument than this rubbish by William Oddie in the Catholic Herald:
Most of the cases of paedophile or (more often) ephebophile (teenage) sex abuse that have emerged over recent years took place decades ago, many in the 70s and 80s, when a very different view was taken by some of what we all without exception now know to be both a revolting crime and a sexual perversion particularly resistant to treatment or therapy. There really were some people who actually thought that paedophilia was a civil right. I was reminded of this by an accusation, made somewhere in cyberspace recently, against politicians supposedly guilty 30 years ago (I say nothing about whether this accusation was justified or not) of complicity in supporting paedophile organisations now long since dead.
A number of points. 1) Apparently, we are supposed to afford those Catholic priests, and their superiors at the time, the benefit of a kind of diachronic moral relativism that is routinely dismissed as debased in circumstances where it would be inconvenient to the church's theology. Think of the homosexuality question -- it's not as if the fact that social mores are now substantially different from fifty years ago makes any difference to the church's theological position; indeed, if it was allowed to make any such difference, the church would be "following society" or "adopting the fashions of the day" rather than remaining "faithful to scripture". (And as if, incidentally, the achievement of gay civil rights was an event as ephemeral and meaningless as a new line in Topman.)
2) Nevertheless, were social mores really that different? The age of consent was 16 then too -- it's not as if the law governing these acts has substantially changed since the 1970s. Indeed, the age of consent was in fact set a century ago. It may be that sex with teenagers was not as stigmatised fifty years ago as it is today. But what is at issue here is not so much the fact that there was illegal sexual contact in the statutory sense, but more that there was by definition a gross exploitation of trust, position and power in the actions of those priests. Do the Catholic authorities still not really understand the distinction? Oddie continues:
[...] the percentage of clergy involved is no higher than that in other religious denominations or in the population at large, with one notable survey emanating from Stamford [sic] University claiming that it was actually smaller (between three to five per cent of priests against eight per cent of males in the American population). That doesn’t make it any better for the victims of clerical abuse, of course: but we need to understand that the scandal is not that our priests are particularly prone to child abuse, but that we are all too representative as a sample of the population, when we should be setting an example to it.
3) Well, at least he acknowledges the obvious in this last sentence. But it is still to miss the point. "We should be setting an example," he says. Yes, of course. But this bare conclusion is to misrepresent the profound hypocrisy of those priests and of the superiors who covered for them. The widespread outrage and cynicism about this situation is not, I would suggest, down to an unfair expectation that every single priest will be whiter than white. Most people understand that there will be bad eggs in any institution, however pious. The outrage is at the perfectly adequate evidence that the church deliberately failed to deal with this problem for a period of decades. The outrage is at the hypocrisy of a church that can display such moral nonchalence towards its own practices while robustly condemning the values and actions of its congregation and the wider world. Oddie seems to want to claim credit for the church when it fulfils its duties, and yet to dismiss or diminish the occasions when it is in dereliction of those duties. What about Luke 17?
Jesus said to his disciples [...] "Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"
The outrage, in other words, is at a church that can produce arguments like this one by Oddie. In an attempt to show how the church is simply caught up in the same world as everyone else, he ends up showing how remote from that world it can sometimes be.
Impermissible Surveillance (18.10.10)
Liberty have issued an ultimatum to West Midlands Police to dismantle its illegal surveillance system:
West Midlands Police faces a judicial review of the unlawful, intrusive and discriminatory Project Champion scheme in Birmingham if a commitment is not given within 14 days to remove all associated cameras.
Liberty has today written to the architects of the Project Champion counter-terror scheme to inform them that they must to agree to dismantle the full surveillance infrastructure or proceedings will be commenced in the High Court. The force must also acknowledge that the decision to install the cameras was unlawful and in breach of residents’ rights under Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Last month an external report, commissioned by West Midlands Police, concurred with Liberty's view that both the surveillance system and the way it was imposed made it "intrusive, disciminatory and illegal". While acknowledging that report, WMP did not commit to dismantling the scheme. The latest Liberty action is an attempt to force WMP to do just that.
Robbin' The Squeezed Middle Hood (15.10.10)
The coalition government has taken child benefit from the rich and is now redistributing the proceeds to the poor. Nick Clegg is to announce that
Two-year-olds from poorer families in England will be offered 15 free hours of pre-school education a week [...] The deputy prime minister will outline the plan as part of £7bn extra to be spent on disadvantaged children over the next four years. [...]
The money is expected to support children from the poorest 20% of families, who are entitled to free school meals.
They will be offered 15 hours a week of free nursery education at two years old, on top of the 15 hours already available at ages three and four.
This could almost be mistaken for a Labour policy. So will they oppose it, given that we now know Labour In Opposition have taken out a subscription to the Daily Mail?
Miliband's Cheap Politics (14.10.10)
Were the media's elite really watching the same PMQs as me yesterday?
The country currently faces hefty cuts -- there is no disagreement between the parties on that fact. The disagreement is about how hefty they should be, and how quickly they should be made: Labour favours slower cuts, while the government favours quicker ones:
In these circumstances, the role of any opposition (but particularly a Labour opposition) is surely to challenge the fairness and effectiveness of such cuts. It has rightly been noted by critics of the government that cuts on this scale risk penalising the poor most -- for example, the increase in VAT will affect the poor disproportionately because low earners spend most of their income. Similarly, as economists at Pricewaterhousecoopers warned recently, public sector cuts (unlike benefit cuts) risk directly driving up unemployment, possibly leading Britain into a "jobless recovery" like that being experienced by the USA. Again, it is the lowest-paid workers who are the most expendible in these circumstances:
Those regions most dependent on the public sector will suffer the largest reductions in employment, peaking at 5.2 per cent of the workforce in Northern Ireland. However, the cumulative impact may be greatest in areas where manufacturing jobs, in particular, were shed most rapidly in the downturn, such as the West Midlands, where unemployment went above 10 per cent, as well as South Wales and the North-east.
The left has a key role to play in challenging the impact of cuts like these. The misery of redundancy and unemployment for those already on the lowest incomes is easily forgotten by senior Tories for whom unemployment has never been anything more than a number in the FT; and considering responsibly the psychological impact on people and communities who have lost their employment is simply where liberal economic models run out. For that reason, we have a welfare system to support people who fall through the hole of structural unemployment. This system is one of the great achievements of postwar British politics.
It is so frustrating, then, when the newly-elected Labour leader chooses to use his first PMQs as a platform to drone on about that change to child benefit. Remember, it's not a cut that affects the poor, nor is it a cut that causes anyone to lose their jobs. In fact, it affects only the top 15% of earners. For as long as Labour obsesses about making cheap political capital out of the "squeezed middle", it is failing the most vulnerable in British society at a time when they need a real Labour opposition the most.
Monbiotic Yogurt (12.10.10)
George Monbiot argues that the left needs to start proclaiming its "intrinsic values" over against the "extrinsic values" of The Man, etc:
Common Cause proposes a simple remedy: that we stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them. Progressive campaigners, it suggests, should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces – particularly the advertising industry – that make us insecure and selfish. [...]
People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see.
This all sounds well and good, until you realise it has nothing whatsoever to do with reality. Drawing on some psychologese-lite issued by (of all people!) the WWF, Monbiot correctly notes that human nature is profoundly divided between self-interest and altruism. Is it not unrealistic, then, to advocate models of political action that rest on a belief that we can, simply by a collective act of will, choose only to use the altruistic bit? History teaches us that political systems which deny the fact that human nature is selfish as well as altruistic tend to wind up as tyrannies.
Does Monbiot think the kind of political decisions being debated at the moment are simple choices between "expediency" and "empathy"? If he does -- or more worryingly, if Ed Miliband does -- then Labour's prognosis is even worse than I thought. Even if Monbiot had a point, which he doesn't, we would still be faced with a distributive question: who should I empathise with? Is everyone equally worthy of my empathy and kindness? For instance, should we be as "kind" to parents earning £45,000 as we are to parents earning a quarter of that? Politics in the real world means considering a distribution not only of kindness, but also of expediency.
EDL defeated in Leicester (9.10.10)
Thankfully the EDL protests in Leicester today have passed without major incident. Instead, people have chosen to bear witness to the city's true character by attending peace vigils.
Abdulkarim Gheewala, of the Leicester Indian Muslim Association, said: "The EDL have singled us out, but I assure you I do not feel alone.
"When I see the crowds in front of me I'm proud to be in Leicester.
"You are proof that they will never be successful here – proof, in fact, that they have already been defeated."
Left Foot Forward on Child Benefit (9.10.10)
Sunder Katwala of Left Foot Forward has assembled ten objections to the proposed child benefit reforms. The first nine contain valid points, but they are basically about tweaking the coalition's proposals; and they could all be met by means-testing. The tenth objection puts the case for universal entitlements:
This is the central objection from the Fabian left: that the ‘common sense’ case for targeting resources on the poor fails, because in a democracy, the evidence strongly shows that it is much harder to. [sic]
Hence Richard Titmuss’ argument that “services for the poor will always be poor services” – as the post-war experience of the universal NHS versus social housing shows – and the Fabian Solidarity Society finding in the comparative international and historic evidence of the “poverty paradox” – that welfare states primarily concerned to address poverty (such as the US and Britain) had a much poorer poverty performance than broader and more inclusive welfare regimes (such as those in Scandinavia).
A problem with this way of looking at things is that child benefit is not a public service. It is a cash payment made from the state to an individual. What is currently under discussion with the child benefit proposals is simply "who should receive the money". The poor will receive exactly the same amount and "quality" of child benefit under the new proposals as under the old system. So how, exactly, does removing a universal entitlement to child benefit make things any worse for people who actually need that support? The poor do not receive a "poorer service" simply because the rich no longer receive it; on the contrary, they receive a better one, because their taxes are no longer subsidising the children of the rich. Katwala's argument is a good one for universal access to the NHS, but not for universal access to child benefit.
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