tag: Law

Jul 2011

14th July 1789: The Storming of the Bastille

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14th July 1789: The Storming of the Bastille.

Today we celebrate, though not without a small note of reservation, the Storming of the Bastille in Paris on this day in 1789. Commemorated with a public holiday in France, Bastille Day has come to mark the beginning of The French Revolution. Of course, France has had a number of significant revolutions – notably the July Revolution of 1830 and the revolution in 1848 that gave rise to the Second Republic – but it is the one that began in 1789 and lasted a full decade that has earned the definite article. It is The French Revolution.

The Bastille (or Bastion de Saint-Antoine) was originally a fortress built in the 1370s – during the Hundred Years’ War – to protect eastern Paris. By the 17th century the expansion of the city meant the Bastille was no longer on the outskirts where it could serve as an effective fortification against attackers, and Louis XIII re-purposed it as a prison. For the next hundred and fifty years the Bastille provided French royalty with a secure facility into which political prisoners and social agitators could be thrown with little or no regard for legal due process. As such, in the eyes of many it soon came to represent the oppression of the monarchy and although it only contained seven prisoners on July 14th 1789, the Storming of the Bastille was a hugely symbolic act, demonstrating the rejection of arbitrary royal privilege by the people of Paris.

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May 2011

To AV or AV not?

I’d intended writing something about the Osama bin Laden assassination, but figured I’d wait until the US government get their story straight. The lovely Citizen S seems to think that these daily revisions of what happened are all about sowing confusion and deliberately creating a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories. I don’t see what Obama’s administration gains from that strategy, but I must admit that I can’t come up with a better explanation for their inability to stick to a single version for more than a few hours.

So I’ve decided to hold off on that issue until things get a bit clearer (which may never happen of course). Instead let me take a few moments to urge my UK readers to consider voting “Yes” in the referendum on the Alternative Voting (AV) system. Those of you who were paying attention in the run up to the last UK general election will recall that I advised voting for the Liberal Democrats on the single issue of electoral reform. Given how disastrous they’ve been in government, I can only apologise for that. In fact, they’ve been so disastrous that I’ve heard people seriously argue for a “No” vote on the grounds that it would punish Nick Clegg. While I completely understand the level of betrayal that many feel (remember, I voted Green in the 2007 Irish election!) “punishing Nick Clegg” is an absurd rationale for rejecting electoral reform.

Don’t get me wrong, if after careful consideration you decide that First Past The Post (FPTP) is a fairer and more democratic system than AV, then by all means vote “No” in the referendum. Frankly I consider that a mystifying position to take (you can pretty much prove on an etch-a-sketch that while AV is far from a perfect voting system, it’s definitely better than FPTP if fairness and democracy are your chief concerns) but we’re all entitled to our opinion, however ridiculous.

Thus far I’ve heard the following arguments in favour of a “No” vote…

Punish the Lib Dems

Yes, the Liberal Democrats have betrayed those who elected them. The notion that they were anything other than a bunch of free market capitalists was always deluded. That they embraced conservative economic policies and propped up a right wing government shouldn’t surprise anyone who cast an informed vote in their direction last year. So if you voted for them because you thought they were “of the left” (as many people apparently did) then you’ve not been betrayed. You were simply ill-informed. However, that the Lib Dems have so cravenly backtracked on unambiguous promises, without putting up a fight or making any sustained public objection, is a clear betrayal. And they deserve to be hung out to dry as a result.

Nonetheless, it would be utterly insane to “punish” the Liberal Democrats for breaking promises by turning your back on the one promise they kept. They secured a (desperately watered-down) referendum on electoral reform. It’s the single good thing to have emerged from this coalition of the craven. Be a shame to waste it really. After all, if you want to punish Clegg because he’s accepted a role as Cameron’s lackey, then it implies it’s Cameron you have the bigger problem with. Right? So why not punish him instead? He wants you to vote “No”.

Besides, this referendum – the first direct say you’ve had in national policy since 1974 – isn’t about Nick Clegg, or about any single political party. It’s about the political system itself. It’s about making it fairer and more representative. Allowing personality or party politics to influence your decision on this is surely defeating the whole point of a referendum. This is a free vote. No party whips. It transcends the petty grievances of today and its effects will be felt long after Nick Clegg has been consigned to an historical footnote in a dull book.

FPTP is better at producing strong, stable government

Well, let’s break that down shall we? It was the current, FPTP system that gave Britain this rather unsavoury coalition of arseholes. If you look at Cameron, Osbourne and Clegg and the words “strong and stable” are the first to come to mind then may I suggest you get yourself a more expansive vocabulary. But that’s not really the point. See, while I dispute the fact that FPTP tends to produce strength and stability, let’s assume for a moment it’s true. It begs the two word question… so what?

See, there’s no doubt that having a strong and stable government is a bonus. But it’s very much a secondary concern for those who want their democratic elections to be… well… democratic. Isn’t it obvious that the first concern should be electing a government that’s actually vaguely representative of what the people voted for? If “strength and stability” are your primary concerns, then fascist dictatorship wins that particular race every time. Seriously, if you see the production of strength and stability as being the function of an election, then why not check out Saddam Hussein’s version of democracy. It’s the same one they use in North Korea. Every few years the population shows up at the polling booth and votes for the one name on the ballot paper. Pretty much guarantees you won’t end up with a coalition.

So if you like the idea of narrowing choice and reducing representation, then it makes sense to follow the advice of the BNP and vote “No” tomorrow. Strength and stability before proportionality. It’s a fine, if slightly unwieldy slogan I guess.

AV is too complex

Perhaps the most bizarre claim of all. The “No” campaign is apparently insisting that British people are too thick to list things in order of preference. Now, I lived in the UK for a fairly long time and while I met my share of thick people there, I wouldn’t say it was more than I met anywhere else. No doubt there are people in Britain who, when asked to list their top five albums of all time, don’t agonise over whether The White Album is better than Astral Weeks but instead agonise over what the word “list” means. But there can’t be that many of them surely. Certainly not enough to warrant making them the central demographic for a national political campaign.

Here in Ireland we’ve got a semi-proportional Single Transferable Vote system with multi-member constituencies. That’s waaay more complicated than AV. But except for the people who stare at their ballot paper wondering what number comes after “1”, we all pretty much grasp it. So when someone tells you that AV is too complicated for you, they are lying to you and they are insulting you. Which means it’s unlikely they have your best interests at heart.

AV is more expensive

Nope. It’s really not. Leastways, it doesn’t need to be. Yes, the referendum itself is going to cost money, but that money’s being spent whatever way it turns out. It’s not like the treasury gets a refund if the nation votes “No”. And the notion that voting by AV will require expensive voting machines, or expensive counting machines, is complete nonsense. Sure, you can invest in those things if you want, but they’re not a prerequisite for an election under the AV system. Here in Ireland, with our even more complicated system, we manage perfectly well voting with a pencil and counting by hand. Sure, we still elect terrible governments, but sadly no voting system can stop that happening. That’s down to the quality of the candidates and the willingness of the electorate to believe any old bullshit.

Bullshit like how expensive, complex and unstable AV is.

It’s not Full Proportional Representation

No, it’s not. AV should produce a more proportional result than FPTP because it will reduce tactical voting and increase the number of “swing seats”. But it’s far from fully proportional. It won’t eliminate tactical voting completely, and there’ll still be safe seats and swing seats. But rejecting a better system because it’s not the best system doesn’t make much sense. Especially since there’s no evidence that sticking with FPTP will increase the likelihood of full PR. In reality the opposite is probably true. Rejecting AV will allow those in favour of FPTP to insist that the British people don’t want change. And some of those in favour of electoral reform will decide it’s a vote loser.

A vote for AV will strengthen the position of those who claim that Britain wants a fairer system. A vote against AV will weaken that position.

Ultimately though, it’s in your hands Britain. You have it in your power to make your democracy marginally more representative. Alternatively, you can voice your support for ‘politics as usual’. How’s that working out for you?

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Dec 2010


The Irish media is still filled with talk of the IMF, the ECB and the bailout. And the snow of course. It’s remarkable when you think about it; there’s almost nothing the Irish government could have done to distract us from the economy. But a few days of frozen precipitation does the job. Suddenly the news is filled with images of kids on sleds and people standing next to snow-covered cars. I’ve not yet encountered anyone combining the two stories, but it’s surely only a matter of time before columnists start talking about the shroud of snow being “appropriately funereal”, or how a blanket has been drawn over the face of the Irish state.

In the rest of the world however, the fate of Ireland is beginnning to fade a little. And although the IMF thing is still getting the occasional headline, it’s more distant… something in the background. It won’t be so bloody distant if we succeed in bringing down the euro, mind. And if I was a citizen of Portugal I’d be getting a bit concerned right about now. Nor should the people of Italy and Spain be feeling too confident.

As I write, a huge amount of private debt is being shifted onto the Irish public. On top of that, we’re being strip-mined of our remaining assets. Goodbye National Pension Reserve fund, hello Wave of Privatisation. And given how fruitful this asset grab is turning out to be, only a fool would bet on it being the last. The Irish acquiescence, along with the failure of any of our neighbours to demand a halt to this daylight robbery, is actively encouraging the “contagion” that everyone claims to fear. The international markets are instruments of tremendous power, and our political leaders are giving them incentives to topple nations. I’ve gone from wondering whether it’s incompetence or madness driving this policy, to realising it’s both. What ‘The Market’ needs right now is a hefty dose of nationalisations to get it back in line. At the same time our political classes could do with a revolution or two in order to teach them some humility. Preferably dramatic but non-violent revolutions (violence tends to breed chaos and with chaos comes a whole host of unintended consequences, and while only a fool insists violence can never be justified, it should always be considered a last resort).

Isn’t this post supposed to be about Wikileaks, though?

Sorry, got a bit carried away with the intro there. Let’s shift our gaze away from Irish matters and take a glance further afield. Ignoring the snow — which is now news across much of Europe and North America — a look at the internet media suggests much of the world is fixated on the Wikileaks saga. And who can blame them? Suddenly the headline “Website sparks war” doesn’t seem entirely fanciful.

As is so often the case lately, I find myself irritated by the polarisation that has emerged as a result of this issue. Two narratives have emerged which reluctantly I find rather simplistic and lacking nuance. And I say “reluctantly” because many of my friends, plus commentators for whom I have a great deal of respect, are promoting one of those simplistic narratives (the “Julian Assange is a hero and the various charges against him are a big American plot” version). The other narrative — less prevalent amongst those I know, needless to say — being the “Julian Assange is a traitorous rapist who seeks to destabilise democratic governments and should be hunted down and shot like the rabid dog he is” version.

Before I get onto the “hero” narrative, let me say a little something about the “villain” Assange. Now, it goes without saying that I don’t know any more about the rape allegations than anyone else. However, there are two points worth noting that cause me some consternation with respect to them. Firstly, the general murkiness of the allegations and the extreme confusion surrounding them makes them — certainly not unique — but definitely atypical in such cases. The charges were dropped, reactivated, dropped and reactivated again. So the current charges are being handled by the third Swedish prosecutor to get involved in the case. It might be argued that this is a result of the difficulty securing evidence and, hence, convictions in this kind of case. All the same, from what I’ve read it is far from normal for such cases to be passed from prosecutor to prosecutor in this manner. A cynic might suggest that two people looked at the case, concluded it had either no merit or that — rightly or wrongly — it simply could not be successfully prosecuted due to a lack of available evidence, but that a third person took up the case for reasons of political ideology or personal aggrandisement.

I should probably take a moment to state clearly (because unfortunately we live in a world where it cannot be taken as read) that if there really is evidence linking Assange to a rape or sexual assault, he should face trial and suffer the full penalty. It is perfectly possible for a person to behave with honour in one area of his life while being depraved in another and the former simply does not excuse the latter.

Nonetheless, one only has to spend a little time reading about the allegations against Assange before confusion and apparent contradiction arise. This may merely be a result of bad reporting, but given how politically charged this whole situation is, I honestly feel one can be forgiven for raising a sceptical eyebrow while at the same time hoping that justice manages to assert itself (in whatever shape it takes).

The second question that gets raised about the rape allegations is one I first saw enunciated by feminist writer, Naomi Wolf, in her article J’Accuse: Sweden, Britain, and Interpol Insult Rape Victims Worldwide. Wolf, who has campaigned for two decades to raise the profile of — and seek justice for — victims of sexual assault views the treatment meted out to Assange in even more cynical terms than I was prepared to…

… Never in twenty-three years of reporting on and supporting victims of sexual assault around the world have I ever heard of a case of a man sought by two nations, and held in solitary confinement without bail in advance of being questioned — for any alleged rape, even the most brutal or easily proven.
… the highly unusual reaction of Sweden and Britain to this situation … seems to send the message to women in the UK and Sweden that if you ever want anyone to take sex crime against you seriously, you had better be sure the man you accuse of wrongdoing has also happened to embarrass the most powerful government on earth.

Keep Assange in prison without bail until he is questioned, by all means, if we are suddenly in a real feminist worldwide epiphany about the seriousness of the issue of sex crime: but Interpol, Britain and Sweden must, if they are not to be guilty of hateful manipulation of a serious women’s issue for cynical political purposes, imprison as well — at once — the hundreds of thousands of men in Britain, Sweden and around the world world who are accused in far less ambiguous terms of far graver forms of assault.

Anyone who works in supporting women who have been raped knows from this grossly disproportionate response that Britain and Sweden, surely under pressure from the US, are cynically using the serious issue of rape as a fig leaf to cover the shameful issue of mafioso-like global collusion in silencing dissent. That is not the State embracing feminism. That is the State pimping feminism.

It’s a difficult point to argue against. For no matter what you believe about Assange or the crimes he is accused of, it simply cannot be denied that his treatment is completely inconsistent with that of anyone else in the same circumstances. I honestly believe that the authorities in most nations fail to treat sex crimes as seriously as they should do. However, Assange’s experience doesn’t redress that; it merely highlights it further and illustrates the willingness of the judicial systems of Europe to bend to the political will of the United States when it suits them (on a day when “[t]he United States and European nations said the [Khodorkovsky] verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights” an idiom involving pots and kettles springs to mind).

Nonetheless, while the Swedish allegations carry at the very least a whiff of conspiracy and political opportunism, I can’t help but be cynical about Assange’s decision to become “the face” of Wikileaks. A decision that has allowed his personal behaviour to begin overshadowing the work being carried out by Wikileaks. It seems it would have been perfectly possible for Assange to have pursued a different strategy… a small collective of semi-anonymous people (akin to “The Yes Men” perhaps?) could have become the voice of Wikileaks rather than a single figurehead whose personal behaviour — whatever the truth behind the charges — has at the very least opened him up to attack and risked discrediting Wikileaks in the eyes of many.

The sad thing is that what was once a low profile but nonetheless powerful collaborative tool for exposing government and corporate corruption around the world has become one man’s high profile stick with which to beat America. As such it’s less radical and less generally useful. Most worryingly though, it may be starting to inflict some collateral damage of its own.

Because moving away from Assange and the rape allegations there’s a larger issue at stake here. I still possess the remnants of the anarchist idealism of my youth. But it’s long been tempered by a realisation that while information may want to be free, it’s not always in the best interests of people that it should be.

It’s possible, for instance, that the North Koreans already knew China and the United States had discussed — however informally — the desirability of Korean reunification under a Seoul government. But if this is the first they’re hearing about it, then there’s a real possibility Wikileaks might provoke another ship being sunk, or another artillery barrage. Or worse. The politics of the Korean peninsula are complex to say the least, but I don’t think it can be denied that the latest escalation in tension can be at least partly attributed to the actions of Wikileaks. If the publication of these cables turns out to be a contributory factor in a new Korean War can anyone really say that these leaks were worth the lives of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people? It’d certainly take someone seriously committed to anarchism and freedom of information to consider so much death and suffering to be a price worth paying.

Especially when you consider the practical usefulness of the revelations. I mean, who seriously is shocked or surprised by anything they’ve read in the published cables? Or even in the previously published documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? We learnt that US troops callously killed civilians in both nations. There may have been a handful of people in Iowa still resolutely denying that such things happened until that famous video of the gunship firing upon injured civilians hit the internet, but I suspect 98% of those who saw that footage were merely receiving visual confirmation of something they already knew was going on.

Similarly, the news that China and the US were discussing ways of sidelining North Korea, or that the Saudis were agitating for a US attack on Tehran were probably well known by the various parties involved — as well as by most informed members of the public — so the public confirmation merely serves to heighten tension, rather than genuinely inform. And the notion that it will force the US (or China or Saudi Arabia) to moderate their behaviour in the future is beyond naive. It will simply force them to tighten security while simultaneously seeking ways to crack down on internet and press freedom.

Ultimately I find myself deeply ambivalent about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The man appears to be embracing shallow celebrity with a certain eagerness that undercuts his campaign, while the potential usefulness of the website (and the world is indeed improved by a system that facilitates whistle-blowing) is — I would argue — compromised by becoming so highly politicised. It needs to be more discerning, and dare I say it, more responsible, about what it publishes. What was once a facility that could be used to expose government and corporate wrongdoing, has recently become little more than a political powderkeg, helping ratchet up tensions between nations, providing recruitment videos to militant organisations and placing more importance in the ability to access information than in the actual importance of that information.

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Nov 2010

How the media encourage violent protests

A couple of days ago, over in the UK, there was a large student demonstration against government policy. A group of protesters split from the main march and occupied the Tory Party headquarters in Millbank. There were clashes between this group and the police resulting in some minor injuries and property damage. An estimated 50,000 students took part in the main demonstration and somewhere in the region of 50 of them were arrested for the building occupation. Yet almost without exception, the reports in the media have focussed on those 50 rather than the other 49,950. The actions of 50 people have apparently “overshadowed” the entire event.

One week earlier, a similar protest took place on the streets of Dublin. Somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 (estimates vary wildly as they always do with such things) students took part. Once again the march splintered, and in this case the Department of Finance building on Merrion Row was occupied. As with the subsequent London action, around 50 people were blamed for this occupation. Or, in the words of the Garda (repeated over-and-over in the media coverage), the protest was hijacked by “a hardcore of around 50 protestors intent on trouble“.

In both cases, the respective national student unions loudly condemned the actions of the “hardcore” minority, acknowledging that while they do indeed oppose government policy, they do so only in a “softcore” fashion. Heaven forbid anyone get the impression they took the matter seriously.

Now, I happen to think that the occupation of government buildings is a perfectly proportional response to the policies being implemented on both sides of the Irish Sea — which is not to say I condone every individual act carried out during those occupations; the chucking of a fire-extinguisher off the roof of the Tory headquarters was reckless and counter-productive (in my opinion). But let’s ignore the rights and wrongs of the occupations for now… that’s not the focus of this particular piece.

Instead let’s talk about how the protests have been covered in the media. Because, while the media’s tendency to give massive coverage to confrontation at the expense of covering the actual issues is a well-known phenomenon, I don’t think enough has been said about their complicity in that confrontation.

Let’s examine again how the demonstrations are described by the media. We’re told that the violence “overshadowed” the peaceful march. That a group of 50 people “hijacked” the protest. But let’s not mince words… those are just lies. Shameful lies disseminated by almost every single journalist who covered the events. The Irish protest wasn’t “hijacked”. It went off exactly as planned, with a mass gathering featuring tens of thousands of people who felt they had legitimate grievances that deserved an airing. Large numbers of people voiced their discontent and (though I wasn’t at either of these demos, I’ve been at enough such occasions to say this confidently) speeches were made that articulately dealt with the policy issues at hand. And the people who occupied Tory headquarters didn’t “overshadow” the main march, the media decided that their actions deserved more prominence. So it was the reporting that obscured the main march, not those who occupied the building.

How the media covers dissent

Now, the media’s justification for this is that a few scuffles, some (minor) property damage and a short-lived group-trespass are somehow more worthy of airtime than the main protest. But that’s nonsense of the highest order. Palpable nonsense.

Visit the centre of any city or large town on these islands at pub-kicking-out time on a Saturday night and I guarantee you’ll be in with a decent chance of finding more scuffles and property damage than occurred at both student protests combined. And it’s not national news. A few bruises, one broken nose and a handful of smashed windows is not important in the sense that 50,000 people taking to the streets to condemn the actions of their own government is important. To suggest otherwise is, as I say, a lie.

The truth is, it’s just easier to make the confrontation the main story. The photographs or film footage is more dramatic, and the journalists get to use action verbs like “smashed” and “charged”. It takes a reporter with genuine talent to turn a peaceful mass-opposition to government policy into a good story. They need to do far more research and to genuinely understand the issues involved. Plus they need to be good enough writers to hold a reader’s attention without the use of action verbs and dramatic photographs.

If the media actually covered the protest in terms of what was important about it, rather than in terms of what was easiest; it would be a full page article about government plans to shred the principle of universal access to education. It would cover issues like the subordination of the education system to the profit-motive… like the gutting of the arts and humanities, not because they aren’t important, but because the free-market places less financial value upon them… like the social engineering programme being implemented by capitalist governments to exclude whole classes of people from higher education on the grounds that their parents aren’t wealthy enough.

In that full page article there would be a couple of lines about how roughly one tenth of one per cent of those who demonstrated ended up smashing a few windows.

And what’s worst of all, damn near every person on those marches is smart enough and educated enough to realise that without that one tenth of one per cent, the entire mass demonstration will hardly get mentioned at all. In the eyes of the media, it will be considered largely unimportant. So, Caught-22 as they are, it is almost inevitable that demonstrations now include a confrontational element. The media demand it.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2010

I’m Lovin’ it

Commercial advertising directed at children is one of the great evils of our age. Benjamin R. Barber’s excellent book, Consumed, examines the phenomenon in detail and presents sobering evidence that the aggressive marketing of consumerism is infantilising adults while simultaneously stripping our young of their childhood; ultimately commodifying even the bonds between human beings so that interpersonal relationships are becoming ever more pathological as new generations are forced to identify more with brands and media imagery than with family or friends.

Gregory Bateson’s work on what he calls deuterolearning (or “learning to learn”) suggests that serious social, cultural and psychological damage can be done when this process is perverted by those seeking to manipulate the development of the psyche for commercial or political gain.

Which is why, despite the fact that California may have let us all down with their failure to pass Proposition 19 yesterday, at least they’ve gotten one thing right this week. The city of San Francisco has passed a law ensuring that fast-food chains are now prohibited from giving away free children’s toys with unhealthy meals. This, by now ubiquitous, trend is a marketing ploy that frankly, is not a million miles away from child abuse.

McDeath logo

After all, the intention of this strategy is to link extremely unhealthy food with the receiving of fun gifts in the minds of children. It is a craven manipulation designed to generate profits at the expense of the health of children. And let’s remember, children are particularly susceptible to this form of emotional and psychological manipulation as they are still learning to learn. Indeed, all marketing aimed at children is no less than a conscious attempt to subvert the development of the young mind and train it to be a less critical consumer. When the marketing involves a product that is so unhealthy, it’s all the worse.

So well done San Francisco, and here’s hoping other places quickly follow suit.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2010

UK Digital Economy Bill

Last night the British parliament enacted a thoroughly regressive piece of legislation. Called The Digital Economy Bill (DEBill), it is ostensibly designed to — amongst other things — prevent internet file-sharing. In fact, what it actually does is allow large corporations to legally victimise individuals based on nothing more than suspicion. Once again the representatives of the people have sold them out to appease the power of private capital.

And people say the coming election actually matters? Fact is, who ever gets into government, it’s Big Business who stays in power.

According to DEBill, corporations are permitted to monitor the nation’s internet connections and demand that anyone suspected of filesharing be disconnected. Yes, warning letters must be sent out first, but the fact remains that there is no actual burden of proof involved. If your IP address is spoofed, or WiFi network hacked, or computer compromised by a custom trojan*, say goodbye to your net connection. If your 14 year old kid continues to download music without your knowledge, say goodbye to your net connection. If you share your own home movies or music with others and can’t prove that it’s your material (in this case there is a burden of proof… but it’s on you; you must take the issue to court at your own cost), say goodbye to your net connection.

And this has happened in a climate where the Minister for Digital Britain, Stephen Timms, claims that “[b]roadband is no longer considered a luxury — it has become an essential service delivering social, commercial and economic benefits”. A climate where Gordon Brown insists that “the internet is as vital as water and gas” (hyperbole certainly, but he said it, not the anti-DEBill camp).

So Britain now has a Labour-driven law designed to allow corporations to legally withdraw essential services from individuals on the basis of suspicion of wrongdoing.

But of course it wasn’t just Labour who passed the law. It pretty much had all-party support. The tories were firmly behind it. And while the Liberal Democrats claimed to oppose it, they couldn’t be bothered to show up for the vote, let alone the debate. This is supposed to be the liberal party, the one that in theory would be most opposed to this kind of corporate power grab, and yet less than a third of their MPs were present in parliament to speak or vote against it. While Nick Clegg and his liberal democrats jet around Britain talking like they’re an alternative to the two large parties, their actions tell a somewhat different story.

Creativity is The Enemy

Politicians are constantly lamenting the perceived public apathy with politics. Young people, they say, are disconnected from the political process. But here we have a bill that’s arguably of particular interest to young people and yet anyone tuning in to watch the proceedings last night would have seen a handful of disinterested and ill-informed MPs in a half-empty room acquiescing to the wishes of big business. If even the professional politicians can’t be arsed to attend a vote on important legislation, is it any wonder nobody else is interested in the bloody process?

UPDATE: It appears that the office of Stephen Timms, Minister for Digital Britain, is under the impression that IP (as in IP address) stands for “Intellectual Property”. I just don’t know what to say about that. Am I the only one who believes that perhaps MPs should actually understand the laws they are passing? That part of their job should be to research things before they legislate on them? Rather than merely being rubber-stamps to the whims of capital? Perhaps that’s why so few MPs showed up to vote… they were too ignorant to grasp the importance of the bill and too damn lazy to do anything about that fact. (via antonvowl on twitter)

* how long before such trojans are maliciously let loose in the wild by script kiddies… carrying a silent payload of a stripped down torrent client and instructions to download the album or movie of the moment?

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Dec 2009

Balancing the books

Yesterday over in London the New Labour government delivered a “pre-budget report”. This is essentially a way to test the reaction of the electorate to the contents of the budget without going through the hassle of leaking stuff through journalists. And despite the fact that opposition parties are wailing and gnashing their teeth based on claims that they’d make a 5% adjustment here and 4.2% adjustment there, there was ultimately little of note in Chancellor Darling’s speech. Aside from the one-off 50% windfall tax on bank bonuses, there will be little in the next UK budget that can be considered radical in any way (and, being a “one off”, that 50% tax isn’t even all that radical and will probably be avoided by many by deferring their bonus until next year… given that plenty of the recipients can afford to do so).

On the other hand, there was some genuinely tough decisions made here in Ireland yesterday as our own Finance Minister (Brian Lenihan) delivered our third unpopular budget of the year, building upon the tax rises and spending cuts already seen in 2009.

Predictably, the budget has met with a polarised response. Those on the left have roundly condemned it, while those on the right have lauded it (including the British conservatives, whose support always makes me suspicious of a thing). Equally predictably, such blanket condemnation / praise simplifies the issues involved to the point of meaninglessness. The economic mess that Ireland finds itself in right now is serious and it’s complex, and while I’m certainly not going to cut the government any slack — they’ve spent the past decade steering us up this creek after all — there is merit to some of Lenihan’s strategy.

The first thing to point out is that Ireland is a small nation. Our population is roughly the same as Greater Manchester, so our tax base is limited. The second thing to point out is that we are in serious debt. This is a direct result of the policies of the current government who oversaw the greatest period of prosperity in the history of the nation but failed to use it as an opportunity to safeguard the future. When George Osborne, the British Shadow Chancellor, hailed Ireland in 2006 as “as a shining example of the art of the possible in economic policy-making”, it was this short-sighted short-termism he was celebrating. Given that the British appear ready to hand the purse-strings to Osborne early next year, it seems they are unwilling or unable to learn from the mistakes of others. And the third vital point to make is that we are not in charge of our currency.

These three points — small tax base, large debt, no currency control — significantly limit the options for the Irish government in comparison with a nation like Britain. This is why we have little choice but to impose a series of painful budgets on the country. Having spent beyond our means for the past 10 years, it’s time to balance the books.

Incidentally, while membership of the Euro limits our options in certain ways, those who view this as an argument against the single currency are willfully ignoring the fact that our membership of the Euro probably protected the nation from bankruptcy and the banking sector from collapse last year. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Unemployment payments

Back with the budget, yesterday’s 4.1% cut in unemployment benefit effectively reduces the payments to the level they were about a year ago. Taken in tandem with the significant deflation Ireland is experiencing, our unemployed are still paid more than almost any other nation in the world. I’m not suggesting it’s a life of luxury being on the dole in Ireland — and those who claim it is are talking politicised nonsense — but it is a life above the breadline. Which is ultimately what our social welfare system is designed to provide. And I say that as a socialist.

That our nation of four million people, in significant debt, can nonetheless keep almost all of the 12.5% of us who are unemployed fed, housed and warm while still treating their illnesses and educating their children is to be applauded, not lambasted. Cutbacks will have to be made in already tight household budgets, certainly. But that’s what happens when the entire nation goes on a decade-long credit-fueled spending spree. An unemployed single parent in Ballymun may not have been responsible for that spending spree, but nor are they responsible for the creation of the welfare system. And the uncomfortable fact is that the large rises in dole and child benefit payments during the past few years represent a not-insignificant part of that spending spree.

Life is still better for the average unemployed Irish person than for the average unemployed American, Briton, Serb, Russian, Pole, Italian, Spaniard, Rwandan, Mexican or Greek. Yes, unemployed Scandanavians, Canadians and French probably have slightly higher standards of living — but we’re near the top of that particular table and should acknowledge that. Personally I figured that a 7-10% cut in welfare payments would have been possible without anyone going hungry or cold. That it’s been limited to 4.1% is as much political as it is economic (given the size of the unemployed voting bloc these days) and has meant cuts elsewhere that are — arguably — larger than is fair.

Public service pay cuts

And when I talk about unfair cuts, specifically, I’m talking about this. The public sector pay cuts represent the single largest spending cut in the budget and is being imposed upon workers who have already taken large pay cuts this year. It’s being met with satisfaction by the private sector and business leaders who seem to view it as somehow unjust that public sector workers have a modicum of job security. In reality, almost everyone in the public sector traded the opportunity to become wealthy for that job security. Business leaders can start complaining about public sector job security when they accept a government mandated pay cap. Until then, let me just point them towards Article 45 of our Constitution which makes it pretty clear that we’re a socialist nation at heart. I particularly like…

The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing:
… ii. That the ownership and control of the material resources of the community may be so distributed amongst private individuals and the various classes as best to subserve the common good.

Excerpt from Article 45 of The Consitution of Ireland

And if you don’t like it, then I suggest moving to a country where wealth distribution isn’t enshrined in the constitution.

Part of this wealth distribution is our welfare system, our free health (means-tested, admittedly) and education. And part of it is the maintenance of a relatively large public sector in which jobs are secure.

And I’m not suggesting that public service workers should be immune from pay cuts. The money has to be found somewhere after all. But I don’t think it’s right that they should be bearing so much of the burden. Cut the welfare budget by another 4% and raise income tax by another 3%. Put up corporate tax by 2.5% (still giving us an extremely low rate). Whatever’s raised by those means should then be used to reduce the cuts experience by the public sector — who have already been hit hard this year.

The carbon tax

Predictably, I’m all for this one. The Greens may claim it as a victory, but I believe it’s more about Fianna Fáil looking for at least one new revenue stream that they can blame on somebody else. Doesn’t matter though; taxing fossil fuels is necessary and while this tax probably isn’t enough to produce significant reductions in their use, it’s a positive first step.

Transportation fuel prices have already been increased as a result, though home heating fuel is exempt until next spring (which is fair enough, as many low-income households will already have budgeted for their winter fuel, and any hike in home heating in the middle of December would run the risk of some going cold).

I think the car scrappage scheme (getting paid by the government to trade in your old car and buy a new one) is ultimately counter-productive. As an economic stimulus package I think it’s of dubious merit (we have no indigenous car manufacturing) and as a strategy to reduce emissions I think it’s extremely limited. The difference in emissions between an old car and a new one, after factoring in the carbon emitted by the car’s production and importation is unlikely to be worth the money being spent on the scheme. Far better to take that cash and invest it in renewable energy.

What I’d like to see, however, is a scrappage scheme that genuinely reduced carbon emissions. Citizen S proposed such a policy, and I think it would probably work. Essentially the government pays people to scrap their cars, but only if they agree not to buy another one for a given period of time. They’d voluntarily have their driving-licence suspended for (let’s say) two years; though they could return the scrappage fee should their circumstances change and they need to drive again.

The scrapped cars could be melted down and recycled as wind turbines.

Booze and fags and stuff

Strangely enough, the budget included a reduction in the rate of alcohol tax. The rationale behind this was to combat cross-border shopping. Large numbers of Irish people drive up north to buy cheaper booze (just as the British cross the channel for it). While there, they tend to spend money on other stuff as well and Lenihan sees this cross-border shopping as a significant drain on the treasury. I don’t know exactly how big a drain it is, but if — as he suggests — a reduction in alcohol tax will actually increase revenue by reducing cross-border traffic then it may make sense.

Domestic violence and addiction groups have complained that the reduction will have the effect of increasing alcohol consumption, and while that may be true, I suggest it’s probably quite marginal (much of the savings to be made on a pint or a short are being negated by pay cuts and tax increases).

Interestingly, the government decided not to increase the cost of tobacco products, claiming that doing so would be counter-productive as cigarette smuggling is already extremely prevalent and any further price increases would actually lower tax revenues from that source as yet more people sought out an illegal supply. I can’t comment on this as I don’t know how true that may be, but if it’s a fact that increasing cigarette tax would result in a decrease in revenue without substantially affecting the number of people smoking, then such an increase would indeed be silly. I don’t smoke tobacco any more so it’s all rather moot from my perspective.

But tobacco isn’t the only thing that can be smoked. One wonders how bad things would have to be before the Minister for Justice reforms drug policy and Lenihan announces a cannabis tax. Certainly such a move, if done sensitively and carefully, could be a boost to the treasury without creating any serious social problems. But I suspect the government doesn’t possess the sense, the bravery or the imagination to consider this idea.

In conclusion

Overall, I don’t think this budget was the disaster it’s being painted as by the Irish left. The public sector is being asked to bear an unfair proportion of the burden, and frankly that’s problematic. That said, this budget is unlikely to be the last round of belt-tightening that Ireland will face over the next year or so. Assuming the public sector has felt the worst of the cuts aimed at them (and I believe they probably have) then we’ll almost certainly see some kind of balance restored during the next budget. Welfare payments will come down by a smiliar amount to yesterday’s announcement, and taxes for corporations and high earners will surely rise by a few percentage points. The cannabis tax will doubtlessly remain a dream, though the carbon tax will surely rise slightly. We’ll also see a return to tobacco and alcohol increases (despite the rationale used this time round) given that we’re likely to still be in a deflationary situation by then and prices will have come down across the board.

Ultimately, Ireland needs to get back on its feet as soon as possible as I firmly believe we need to be investing heavily in renewable energy over the next ten years or so. And we can’t do that without first balancing the books. This budget, though imperfect and creating justifiable anger in the public sector, goes some way towards achieving that balance.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2009

Blessed are the merciful

Less than 12 hours ago the State of Virginia executed John Allen Muhammed. I’m sure most people will recall the killing spree he went on in 2002 when the media dubbed him “The Washington Sniper”. Muhammed stalked the suburbs and, from a concealed location, shot people at random with a high-powered rifle. By the time he was caught ten people were dead and four seriously injured. Prior to his execution, Muhammed expressed no remorse for his actions.

Over at The Guardian, Virginia Moffatt has written a column headlined John Allen Muhammed deserved mercy. But as is so often the case with the work of sub-editors and headline writers, this misrepresents her argument. I don’t believe Moffatt actually suggests that Muhammed deserved mercy. I believe her position is a little more subtle; a fact that escaped both the sub-editor and the legion of commentators on her piece insisting — with, I suspect, no little froth — that Muhammed deserved to die.

Moffatt’s primary objection to the execution of Muhammed, and I suspect to the death penalty in general, is not that murderers deserve to live, but that putting them to death “diminishes our humanity”. To me, this is the crux of the death penalty debate and the reason I too am absolutely opposed to it. Of course, Moffatt goes a little far and damages her own argument by suggesting that the execution of Muhammed “makes us no better than the murderer [himself]”.

Terrorising three states for a period of weeks by randomly killing residents, leaving 14 people dead or injured and co-opting a teenager into your murderous plan… well, that probably counts as a worse crime than catching and killing the person who did it. So I really wish that those who — like me — oppose the death penalty, would stop trotting out the “it makes us no better than them” cliché. It would be a very difficult claim to substantiate even if your audience was comprised entirely of wise moral philosophers with no personal axe to grind. But in the real world, where almost all of us allow our gut feelings and emotions to influence our judgment, it just sounds silly.

Nonetheless, I’ll stick by the first part of Moffatt’s argument, even if it also requires a certain overcoming of our gut reaction. A failure to show mercy does indeed diminish our humanity.

See, this is the bit that most people (judging by the comments on Moffatt’s article) fail to understand. We do not show mercy to people like Muhammed because he deserves mercy. We don’t show mercy because of what it offers him. We do it because of what it offers us. Just as forgiveness — which tends to come a long time after mercy — is less about what it offers those who have harmed us, than it is about healing ourselves.

To show mercy is to grant a victory to compassion over hatred. It reinforces the light while diminishing the darkness. It makes us better people. That is why John Allen Muhammed should not have received a lethal injection last night. Not because he deserved mercy. But because we do.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2009

Cannabis prohibition — a question

While the question is implied in my previous post, I’d like to spell it out directly here in the hope that someone can provide an answer.

Why is it a criminal offence to possess cannabis?

The recent admission by the British Home Secretary that their policy is not based upon scientific advice is merely an unusually candid statement of a well-understood truth.

Stephen Whitehead, in the comments to my last post, suggests that the policy might be a product of “values and social norms”. But which values, specifically? And how does one pin down “social norms” long enough to legislate and incarcerate based upon them?

I’d argue that the values of a liberal society are actively transgressed by a government that chooses to destroy the lives of those who engage in a private activity that harms nobody except in extremely rare cases, themselves. Intoxication is not itself a transgression of any western values. And social norms are a dreadful basis for legislation. Those who speak of the wisdom of crowds have never studied group psychodynamics. Groups of people can be manipulated into accepting almost any set of social norms one cares to mention. For good or for ill.

So if a government acknowledges that drug prohibition is not based upon the harm caused by drugs (and indeed seems to exacerbate that harm), then what is it based upon? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. Up until now I assumed it had something to do with our laws being made by a generation of people who were ignorant and fearful of drugs and who erroneously assumed drugs were more harmful than prohibition. Now, however, we have law-makers who were adolescents in the 1960s and 70s, many of whom admit to having tried it themselves* and who have received clear advice from experts in the field that prohibition simply doesn’t have a scientific justification.

What worries me is that Stephen Whitehead may well be right. Drug prohibition, like so many other areas of policy, is indeed based upon “values and social norms”. But “values and social norms” is little more than a respectable way of saying “the editorial position of tabloids”. Our law-makers (and this goes for us over here in Ireland as well as my friends in Britain) appear infinitely more concerned with keeping The Daily Mail and The Sun happy than they are with passing rational laws and doing the right thing.

And people still wonder why I (and so many others) have begun to hold the democratic process in such contempt. There’s no way of testing it, of course, but I pretty much guarantee that were the editors of tabloid newspapers and Sky News to shift their position on drug prohibition tomorrow that the entire public debate would have changed within a couple of weeks and we would see major changes in the law within a few months or so. And when a handful of media moguls have the power to substantially alter “values and social norms” it becomes quite clear why “values and social norms” should never trump scientific evidence and rational assessment in the arena of public policy.

Update 15:36: And on roughly the same topic…

The excellent Stewart Lee
* and who would never have been selected as parliamentary candidates if they’d been criminalised as a result. How much more harmful would a five year jail sentence have been to David Cameron than the pot he smoked at Eton? How much more harmful would a criminal record be to Jack Straw’s son, than the little bit of weed he sold? But so long as the harm isn’t happening to them, our political classes appear blind to it. Petty, vindictive, hypocritical bastards that they are.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2009

Scientific advice and policy confusion

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the drug policies of most governments are profoundly irrational. They are based upon ideology, spurious reasoning and outright falsehoods. Furthermore there is no evidence whatsoever that they achieve their stated aim. In fact, the circumstantial evidence available seems to suggest they have precisely the opposite effect to that which is desired by policy makers. Prohibition appears to increase drug use, as well as increasing the social problems associated with that drug use.

Never has this bizarre irrationality been thrown into more stark relief than with the British decision to sack Professor David Nutt. Professor Nutt was the UK’s chief scientific advisor on drug policy and chaired the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). In response to his dismissal two more members of the council have resigned and there are rumblings that the entire ACMD is about to dissolve in disarray with Professor Nutt claiming that there is “no future for the council in its present form”.

Nutt is a psychiatrist and pharmacologist. He heads the Psychopharmacology Unit in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Bristol, is a Consultant Psychiatrist to Avon and Wiltshire Partnership NHS Trust and is Head of the Department of Neuropsychopharmacology and Molecular Imaging at Imperial College London. He was appointed Chairman of the ACMD because he probably knows more about the science of drug use than anyone else in the UK.

Professor Nutt was fired by the British Home Secretary, Mr. Alan Johnson. Johnson left school when he was 15 to stack shelves at Tesco. He then worked as a postman for a while before becoming a career politician.

Science Vs Policy

In a letter to Professor Nutt, Alan Johnson informed him he was being dismissed because “I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy”.

This is a remarkable admission, by the man in charge of UK drug policy, that the policy is not based upon scientific advice. It’s reminiscent of the Bush Administration’s contempt for what they described as “the reality-based community”.

We’ve known for years, of course, that the British government (along with almost every other) do not base drug policy on the scientific advice of those actually qualified to provide it. Professor Nutt’s statements about the relative dangers of various drugs (the statements that got him into all this trouble) are very similar to the conclusions reached by the Wootton Report forty years ago. According to that report (published in January 1969), “Cannabis is less dangerous than the opiates, amphetamines and barbiturates, and also less dangerous than alcohol.”

In Nutt’s case, his indiscretion was to provide a list of commonly consumed drugs in order of the harm they cause based upon the scientific evidence available. Cannabis is listed in 11th position while alcohol is 5th and tobacco 9th.

It’s worth pointing out that this list was published two years ago. In the intervening period, Nutt has essentially watched as every piece of scientific advice provided by the ACMD has been ignored, while at the same time parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee sought the advice of Amy Winehouse’s dad (a cab driver)* on drug policy. One imagines that Professor Nutt’s frustration began to increase when he noted that his advice was not merely being ignored, but that policies were being pursued (the reclassification of cannabis as a Class B substance) which actively contradicted his advice.

I would argue, despite Alan Johnson’s claims, that Professor Nutt was not merely right to inform the public that his advice was being ignored, but actually had an obligation to do so. The public, after all, should know the basis upon which policy is being decided. Particularly if that policy involves the potential criminalisation of between 2 and 5 million people (“In the UK, around 15 million people would now admit having tried cannabis, with between 2 and 5 million regular users.” — Cannabis Use in Britain, PDF).

Professor Nutt, and it’s worth making this clear, never made any specific policy recommendations. He didn’t call for legalisation or decriminalisation and never suggested that cannabis or ecstasy were harmless. He merely made the following observations:

  1. most of the drugs for which we currently incarcerate people for using are less harmful than drugs we sell in corner shops and derive tax from.
  2. some of the drugs for which we currently incarcerate people for using are less harmful than common recreational activities such as horse-riding.
  3. there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the current drug classification system results in a reduction of drug use.
  4. the current drug classification system may actually result in significant social harm.
  5. numerous statements made about drugs by politicians are demonstrably false (including Gordon Brown’s bewildering comment about “lethal cannabis”).

I am forced to wonder, now that Alan Johnson has admitted that drug policy isn’t actually evidence-based (not in those words of course, but it’s the inescapable interpretation), just what he believes it is based upon. Whatever it is, the tories are clearly in on the secret as David Cameron is — unsurprisingly — supporting Alan Johnson on this issue and suggesting that Professor Nutt’s comments about ecstasy were not “a particularly good way of putting it” (it seems Nutt failed to spin the truth sufficiently to make it palatable to Cameron’s irrational hardline stance).

Of the mainstream politicians, only the Liberal Democrats seem to have worked out exactly what’s going on, with Chris Huhne insisting that “any minister who hides away from scientific advisers who are saying clearly what the scientific evidence shows is frankly going to end up with policy which is a complete mess.” He also suggested that the government may as well set up “a committee of tabloid newspaper editors to advise on drugs policy”.

Personally I suspect they already have.

Tune in next week when Gordon Brown appoints a window-cleaner from Stoke to design the next generation of nuclear power stations.

* I’m not suggesting that Mr. Winehouse’s observations about the lack of rehab facilities for heroin addicts aren’t valid, merely that Professor Nutt is bound to wonder why the government bothers soliciting scientific evidence and advice in the first place, if policy is ultimately going to be made by a postman who consults a cabbie.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion