Sunday Sun Sentamu   (26.2.12)

In the Archbishop of York's first column written for Murdoch coin, he states that "Lent is not a time for pointing the finger at others. As Alexander Pope said: 'To err is human, to forgive is divine.' We should always remember that when we point the finger at other people, there are three other fingers pointing back at us! We should rejoice in new life, turning our back on what has gone before." Presumably, then, Sentamu thinks there is no need for a system of justice (at least during Lent)? This is ironic, at the end of a week when Sentamu has quite rightly been pointing his finger at Ugandan politicians. And previously he has quite rightly pointed the finger at Robert Mugabe.

Sentamu well knows that finger-pointing -- standing up to injustice -- is often precisely what must precede forgiveness and reconciliation. I am reminded of something we were taught by the wonderful priest who prepared us for confirmation: we must forgive, but we must not forget. Forgetting, "turning our back on what has gone before", dooms the future to repeating the mistakes of the past.

Unfair Workfare   (25.2.12)

Over the past two years this blog has consistently advocated public-sector work placements for the long-term unemployed. Although not all of the criticisms made of the workfare scheme are apt, it seems to me that the Tesco debacle of recent days does indicate some real problems with the way the scheme is currently run.

  1. I have always imagined it primarily as a scheme to place people in public-sector work placements specifically designed to provide useful training and upskilling, rather than mindless shelf-stacking for opportunistic private sector clients. Making people do the latter does indeed look like it is just providing cheap labour.
  2. If the idea of workfare is at least partly to give people a realistic experience of work, it is important that their experience of pay is also realistic. Those who have been out of work for a long time and are reticent to return to it are hardly going to be encouraged by not being paid.
  3. However -- and this is also an important point -- permanent employees are not going to impressed if unemployed people are being paid the same wages as them while still being entitled to benefits on top of that. Perhaps, therefore, a solution is to top up the pay of people on workfare placements so that their pay plus benefits adds up to roughly the level of an ordinary employee at their place of work.
  4. Much has been made of the fact that these placements are mandatory. Yet one of the main arguments for the existence of a workfare scheme is to remove the perverse incentive to stay out of work. How is this aim to be fulfilled if the placements are not mandatory? (Of course, they are only sort-of mandatory anyway: nobody will be compelled to complete them if they choose not to claim benefits.)
  5. Having said all this, I wonder whether there is really much value in the existence of placements like this in the private sector. If companies are going to be pressured to offer permanent contracts to people on placements, as now seems likely, the placements become little more than a probationary period, only without the protection of the minimum wage or statutory employment rights. This is going to do very little to reduce unemployment, as companies will still have to make exactly the same calculations about how many employees they can afford to pay.
  6. A much-expanded public sector scheme seems more likely to command public confidence, and is therefore more likely to succeed. If private companies want the boost their social responsiblity portfolios, let them sponsor public-sector placements rather than actually providing the work. Placements could then be tailored to the needs of the participants, and they could offer something of more public value than shelf-stacking in the process.

Democracy is not majoritarianism   (21.2.12)

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, in a turn for the hyperbolic, recently described gay marriage as "one of the greatest political power grabs in history". In his view, presumably that moustachioed Austrian just presided over a minor border dispute with Poland.

But there's a more serious point to be made. It has been suggested that gay marriage would be "undemocratic", because it means modifying a social institution for the sake of a small minority of the population. However, such a view shows an incomplete idea of democracy. Neither popular opinion nor the size an interest group defines the democraticness of a policy. For example, let's imagine that we live in a society with high levels of burglary. It is not too hard to imagine a situation where a majority of public opinion favours the death penalty for burglars. That the policy might command such support does not justify it or make it democratic; and that's because democratic values have a further reach than the sphere of public opinion. More importantly than public opinion, democratic values protect the civil rights of even the smallest minorities within a society. If democratic values did not have this reach, we would be living in a utilitarian dystopia.

Conversely, supposing that such a right exists morally, creating a legal right to civil marriage for gay people is a perfectly democratic measure; and it would be so regardless of popular opinion on the matter. Democracy is primarily about safeguarding the equal civil rights of every individual. The minority-of-one is the truest test of democracy's nerve. Representing majority opinion in legislation is a secondary concern.

Love is like a bottle of gin   (19.2.12)

Why the decision not to pardon Alan Turing is wrong   (14.2.12)

This year marks the centenary of Alan Turing's birth. Turing made a key contribution to the British war effort. However, in 1952 he was prosecuted for committing homosexual acts and sentenced to chemical castration by treatment with female hormones. This damaged him physically and psychologically, and he committed suicide two years later. In spite of this, Manchester, the city where he worked, has commemorated Turing by naming roads and buildings after him. Last week, Justice Minister Lord McNally dismissed a motion to pardon Turing in the House of Lords. He stated that

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence". [...] However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

I think the government's decision is wrong, and here's why: the decision fails to recognise the difference between just and unjust law. By way of illustration, consider two examples. In some countries, it is perfectly legal to drive on a motorway at 120mph. In others, it is illegal to drive above 60mph. We do not typically think there is anything intrinsically wrong with one law or the other. That is because, in many instances, there is scope for wide variation in the ways in which just principles are codified in law. Although in this case one country permits what another country prohibits, we do not think of one law as being more "just" than another.

However, some laws do directly violate basic principles of justice. Consider now one country that permits slave labour, and another country that strictly prohibits it. The laws permitting slavery are intrinsically unjust, in that they themselves violate basic principles of justice: rights to liberty, bodily integrity, self-ownership, the fruits of one's own labour, etc. Now suppose that these laws exist not in different countries, but in the same country, only separated by fifty years of legislative reform. The fact that "times have changed" does not make unjust what used to be just. Slavery was always unjust; only a lot of people could not, or would not, see why. Indeed, such legislative reform can only be properly understood, as McNally inadvertently concedes, by accepting that it was the reform of an unjust situation into a (more) just one.

In the case of Alan Turing, his most basic rights were violated -- not only by the laws which unjustly restricted his liberty and punished him for his sexuality, but also by the manner in which he was punished, a manner which caused him direct physical and psychological injury. The law and judicial processes at the time were instruments not of justice, but of injustice. Those who read this far and still find themselves saying "yes, but people thought differently in those days; he should have observed the laws of the day," succumb to moral relativism. Those who were convicted and punished on the basis of demonstrably unjust law should be pardoned -- all of them. It is not about trying "to put right what cannot be put right"; it is about acknowledging, here and now, that what happened to Turing was wrong.

A thought on Ken   (11.2.12)

There was an interesting storm-in-a-teacup this week. In a characteristically informal interview with the New Statesman, Labour's candidate for Mayor of London Ken Livingstone made the following comments:

[The public] should be allowed to know everything, except the nature of private relationships - unless there is hypocrisy, like some Tory MP denouncing homosexuality while they are indulging in it. [...] As soon as Blair got in, if you came out as lesbian or gay you immediately got a job. It was wonderful. [...] You just knew the Tory party was riddled with it, like everywhere else is.

Some took offence at Livingstone's use of the words "indulging" and "riddled". Gay Labour MP Chris Bryant hit out at those criticising Livingstone, saying that "faux outrage turns my stomach". I've no doubt that lots of the outrage was indeed affected for party political purposes. Livingstone has been an excellent supporter of equal rights for gay people, and Peter Tatchell is right to defend him for taking a stand on the issue at a time when it was still unfashionable in the Labour party to do so.

However, Livingstone's choice of terms does indicate something important about the nature of prejudice: namely, that there is no reason why a person cannot passionately believe in the political cause of gay rights while still unconsciously harbouring prejudices about gay people. "Indulging" and "riddled" are negative and pejorative terms, and are remarkable precisely for the fact that they are inconsistent with Livingstone's considered political opinion. The author and poet Sophie Hannah posted on Twitter: "My fridge is riddled with champagne. My shelf is riddled with ace books. My weekend was riddled with fun. Doesn't work, does it, Ken?"

I'm sure that this phenomenon applies in some way to every human being on this earth; but that's no less reason to recognise that many of our prejudices are irrationally and unconsciously held, and manifest in irrational and unconscious ways.

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