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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.)

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Michael Walzer on global and local justice   (26.11.10)

(via, via)

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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".

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Queen God   (23.11.10)

Sir Humphrey Appleby once said, "The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England. God is an optional extra."

Ahem.

Who'd have thought that Yes Prime Minister was a satire! (thx Stuart)

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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.

(previously: 1 2)

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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.

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Birbalsingh defends education criticism   (19.11.10)

Katharine Birbalsingh defends herself against an opinion piece by Fiona Millar (partner of Alasdair Campbell) launching an unnecessarily personal attack on her:

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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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."

(previously: 1 2 3 4 5)

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24   (15.11.10)

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".

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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.

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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.)

(previously: 1 2 3 4)

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Skateistan   (13.11.10)

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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?

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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).

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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.

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Woolas disqualified   (5.11.10)

Woolas Leaflet

Source: New Statesman

(More leaflets from the campaign)

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.

(previously: 1, 2)

Update

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.

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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.

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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.

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