Saturday, June 14, 2008 

The luck of the Irish.

We are then back where we started. The only people to be offered a referendum, and only then because Ireland's own constitution demands it, and they make the wise decision to reject it, and on a remarkably high turnout as well of 53.1%. Little wonder then that rest of Europe has rushed to decide to completely ignore the only direct democratic will of the people on the matter.

As Nosemonkey writes, don't even begin to imagine that this is the final downfall of the EU constitution, or the Lisbon treaty as few bother to call it; it's already showed that it's the veritable Rasputin of convoluted, indecipherable legal documents. For those of us who favour the European Union but are exasperated at how utterly useless those in government and outside of it are at winning far larger public support for it, this is the best possible outcome.

Ignore the nonsense emanating from the UKIP tendency of how this was a vote against greater integration, primarily it was a vote against something which only judges, bureaucrats and lawyers can understand and a vote against the politicians who didn't even attempt to help those voting understand. Someone said you'd have to be mad to attempt to read it, let alone understand it, and they'd be right. Enough people struggle with a book like Vernon God Little, let alone something which you could break windows with were you to throw it. If you don't understand it, vote no. Who could possibly argue with such basic logic, or blame them for doing so?

It matters little that some of the other reasons why the constitution were opposed were either imaginary or scaremongering, mainly because that's exactly how the Irish government played it too, as did the other EU politicians who bothered to comment. As so often happens when something involves the EU, if you don't do as you're told, threats must be involved. Hence there was no real case made for why the European Union has been such a boon for Ireland, and that the constitution, for all its faults, is for the moment the only way forward; instead it bordered on the we must support this, but we can't really be bothered making the cause for why. Just get along to the polling station and do the right thing, OK?

Now that the wretched thing has been defeated yet again, it would be nice if instead of going through the same ritual as before, i.e. coming up with a document 95% the same but which really is different, honest, trust us, which was only always going to end in tears, the EU sat back and considered for a moment where it's gone so wrong. Not just is there such a monumental democratic deficit, there's also so little room for consultation with those outside the inner circle of politicians that everyone, with more than a little justice, sees it as a monolithic, unaccountable and completely out of touch bureaucracy that fundamentally cannot be trusted and which can't even get its accounts signed off.

The only thing that is going to save it, and get any constitution accepted by almost any population outside the mainly pro-Europe central European nations is root and branch reform from the bottom up. Strict, complete limits need to be set down that make crystal clear where EU power begins and independent nation state power begins. It needs to be decided whether we want a "social" Europe, the foremost reason why the constitution was originally rejected by the French and Dutch and one of the factors in Ireland, of the kind envisioned in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, or one where free trade and movement takes precedent, as the Peter Mandelson-types support. Most fundamentally of all, each nation state should be directly asked in a referendum whether it wants to remain in the EU at all. Let's have a proper debate on the benefits and the downsides, as free from fabrication, innuendo and the bullshit which goes hand in hand with coverage of Europe in the right-wing tabloids as possible, and make a decision for at least the next generation. Perhaps then we might start to get either the Europe we need - or the Europe we deserve.

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Friday, June 13, 2008 

On the media's response to Davis and the Sun's entering of the fray.

The overwhelming response of the media to David Davis's decision to resign and fight a by-election on 42 days and civil liberties seems only confirm the increasing disconnect, not just between politicians and the public, but also between the media and the country outside the Westminster village. Almost universally, Davis has been insulted, slurred, accused in some cases of succumbing to mental illness, and disparaged. The Guardian, while being sympathetic to his decision, variously throughout its pages calls him an "oddball", "egotistical" and a "loner", suggests his campaign may turn "quixotic" and has "Sir" Michael White saying that "such unpredictability unsettles the trade". At the other end of the spectrum, the Sun is even more vitriolic, headlining its leader "Crazy Davis", asking rhetorically whether he's "gone stark raving mad", and then goes on to declare that his stepping down was an act of "treachery", that he's a second-rate politician, serially disloyal which "provides further evidence of a deranged mind", that this is "petulant grandstanding" and finally, that he's "loopy". And this is before it's even launched its likely campaign for Kelvin MacKenzie.

All of this would be very well if the fourth estate was only catering for the Westminster village; this is almost undoubtedly exactly what they think of Davis and his very different to Ron Davies' moment of madness. The bloody man's resigned over a principle! We can't have that sort of thing going on here! The Conservative front-benchers have been completely flummoxed because they can't get their heads round how someone could do something that so endangers his actual career prospects. When you're as focused and ambitious as some of the filth that passes for the next generation, like Michael Gove and George Osborne, to potentially ruin your chances of getting your hands on the power to run the country seems akin to stripping naked, smothering yourself in butter and running around the houses of parliament with a gag in your mouth and a hedgehog up your backside. They're agog and aghast at the embarrassment and most of all, the difference to what is routinely expected of them. Forget 42 days and terrorists, to them this seems a far more dangerous outbreak of independent thinking and action.

Outside of that prism, even if they don't necessarily agree with Davis over 42 days, most ordinary people seem to respect him just because his decision was both so unexpected and outside of the norm. The online response to it seems to have been mostly positive, apart from those who have voiced their more than valid concerns that Davis is a social conservative rather than a true libertarian, which dulls his stance to an extent. This though seems to me to miss the point. For all those who have suggested that it'll turn into farce, today's coverage does generally seemed to have towards the issues itself rather than the personalities involved, and Davis, pledging to make the case and attempt to turn public opinion over 42 days in a way in which the wider political class has failed to do so is more than admirable, it's essential. At the moment we're stuck in the rut of this being framed as a vital measure that is needed by the police just in case; what it actually is just the most vivid example of the slow dilution of essential liberties which have in some cases, but not in all, been taken away without the slightest of comment and consultation, or where there has been, under the pretence that it's needed because our security demands it and not to do so is to be either irresponsible or "soft" on either crime or terror.

This view could be not more crystallised by the quite brilliant decision by Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Wade and Kelvin MacKenzie to involve themselves. Never before has there been such a great opportunity to puncture the Sun's claimed stranglehold on the public mood and to make clear that rather than speaking for the people, it tells them what to think in coalition with whichever current politician has made a pact with the Prince of Darkness himself. The Sun doesn't represent the traditionally small-c conservative view on liberty, or the liberal-statist view on liberty as espoused by the Guardian, it represents the chuckleheaded, moronic, complacent and acquiescent view of it. Witness the great oaf of a man, who still can't bring himself to apologise to the people of Liverpool for publishing the most vicious of lies about how they behaved in the aftermath of the worst football tragedy this country has ever seen, telling everyone that he doesn't care whether terrorist suspects are locked up for 420 days, about CCTV cameras or ID cards, not because he actually believes they will make things any better, but because he simply is Kelvin MacKenzie. It doesn't affect him because no one's going to accuse him of terrorism, or follow his movements and spy on him, or attempt to steal his identity, because he's a middle-class opinion-former that's more than comfortably off and has the ear of one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. He doesn't have anything to hide because he couldn't really do anything lower than he's already managed in his tabloid career.

Here's the paradox of the Sun's position on civil liberties and the state. Murdoch and his papers believe in the smallest state achievable, the lowest taxes and the most business friendly environment for himself. When it comes to the actual power of the state over the citizen rather than faceless corporations, then he and his papers are all in favour of it. Give the police what they want! Constant CCTV surveillance! A DNA database containing everyone's fingerprints and blood samples! As tough on crime and thugs and yobs, regardless of the consequences as feasible! You only have to read the shopping list of demands that the Sun drew up in co-operation with the "mothers in arms" to get an inkling of what the paper in its wildest dreams would like the state of civil liberties in this country to look like: everyone a suspect, everyone assumed guilty until proved innocent, and you being strung up in public by the knackers for looking at a kid the wrong way. I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly, as it doesn't support capital punishment; castration of paedophiles, well, that's another matter.

The Sun's arrogance was exposed on Question Time last night. The paper's political editor, George Pascoe-Watson, was going through the usual routine of rather than giving his personal opinion instead using every opportunity to give the paper's view, and to plug it at the same time. Hence he made much of the Sun's "help for heroes" campaign, but came unstuck on one of the later questions when he began with something along the lines of "Well, as you know we on the Sun..." to which David Dimbleby interrupted with "Not everyone reads the Sun, you know", to which the audience heartily applauded. The Question Time audience is hardly representative, but what it did show was that the Sun's positioning is nowhere near as popular as it imagines, even among its readers which devour the sport and the celebrity but couldn't care less about its atrocious politics. This is exactly what Davis's campaign should pick up upon if Kelvin MacKenzie does stand, which will be incredibly interesting purely because of where his funding will come from, considering Murdoch is barred from donating as he's not a British citizen. No doubt some convoluted structure will be found that will be allowed. Instead of listening to people, what the Sun does is decide upon a line and then dictate it, regardless of what anyone else says, and if anyone suitably outspoken comes along and challenges it, then the smearing commences. Its cynical use of those that don't support it, such as the head of the British Muslim Forum, who said the opposite of what the Sun said he had on 42 days, and the completely misleading interpretation of MI5's statement are prime examples.

For if Davis's decision to contest a by-election on 42 days is vanity, then the Murdoch decision to oppose him is a potential disaster for both them and the Labour party. If Labour doesn't stand a candidate, and despite all the nonsense, if the Liberal Democrats aren't standing then Labour's chances will be greatly improved, MacKenzie will be in effect their candidate, making their arguments in an even more inarticulate way than they've managed in parliament, and by God, that's saying something. Gordon Brown can call it a stunt turned into a farce all he likes, but if his party refuses to stand, then it only shows them up as doing what the Sun does: taking the public completely for granted and not seeking their opinion at all, instead telling them what their opinion should be. Even if MacKenzie decides against standing and Davis is up only against a Monster Raving Loony, he's still made his point, and what's more, it just shows the contempt that those who are above the law for the civil liberties of the majority. The more I think about it, the more Davis's stand gives us an opportunity and a chance that we previously didn't have: to make the case for the rolling back of the state's authoritarian but completely ineffective incursion on the daily life of the citizen. When our opponents are either this pipsqueak or the worst the Sun has to offer, it really will be impossible not to force at the least a pause in the slow but consistent momentum towards something resembling a police state.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008 

Davis deserves and needs support.

Apart from "Aha!", the other catchphrase that Alan Partridge bequeathed us was "and on that bombshell...". I'm sure that Steve Coogan won't begrudge us somewhat stealing it to describe David Davis's completely unexpected resignation from the post of shadow home secretary and as an MP to contest a by-election entirely on the Labour government's bonfire of civil liberties.

Let's get the sniping and conspiracy theories out of the way first. Numerous sources are alleging that this was Davis going nuclear: either because Cameron wouldn't commit to repealing 42 days if it reaches the statute book should the Conservatives win the next election, or because he was fed up with the Cameron clique muttering behind his back over his stranglehold on home affairs policy, doing things that were not going down with the all so important Murdoch press, despite the Sun being almost in a minority of one in Fleet Street in supporting 42 days. Others still are suggesting that this is to carve out a niche for the old-school hard right, or even the first step towards Davis launching a bid for the leadership.

It would be naive to dismiss the possibility that it could be all or any of the above, and certainly foolish to not realise that they must have played some role in his decision to step down. What is also clear however is that Davis has been for a while now completely aghast at the casual, crude and populist way in which our ancient liberties have been abused, diminished and now finally, with 42 days, almost taken away entirely. As others have written, Davis doesn't care much for liberties which have been won partially thanks to Europe, such as the Human Rights Act, which despite its shortcomings still offers some protection, but rather out of a patriotic sense of disgust at ancient, uniquely British liberties being sold on the open market and for short-term party political gain. For him, 42 days has been the final straw.

Reading the dismay, in some places verging on despair posts that have been written across the whole spectrum of blogs in this country, many of those online, although hardly being representative, feel exactly the same way. 42 days has been a wake-up call beyond what 90 days was for many because we all knew that not even Blair could possibly get away with such a constitutional outrage. 42 days however is meant to be more reasonable; just look at the safeguards, look at the judicial supervision, looking at us bending over backwards so far that the powers are almost worthless! None of this alters the fact that being held in a police cell for six weeks, only to then be possibly released without charge is quite simply unacceptable in any democracy worth the name. The bottom line is that we don't trust the police, we don't trust the security services and we don't trust the government to use such a power responsibly, only when it is needed and only against those that they say it will be targeted against. All three have lied to us time and time again, all have exaggerated the threat and all are motivated, not out of this benevolent desire to protect the public but out of their own self-interest.

This isn't to suggest that David Davis isn't at least being partially motivated by his own self-interest. If he wasn't, he wouldn't be human. Unlike those in the government however that are pretending to be just that, he is at the very least standing for what he believes in. While legion after legion of Labour MPs yesterday passed through the lobby, not because they believed in the legislation but because they had either been bought off or to support the Supreme Leader, the principled few stood up and said that abandoning civil liberties to those who would remove all our liberties were they to have their way is not just wrong, it is bordering on the actionable.

If this is then a stunt, then it's a stunt that deserves not just applause and praise, but that deserves the most ardent of support. Yes, David Davis is a Thatcherite. Yes, he's a social conservative rather than a genuine social libertarian. Yes, he supports capital punishment. All of that however pales into inconsideration when he makes his case so clearly and so singularly against this shabby Labour government:

But in truth perhaps 42 days is the one most salient example of the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedom.

And we will have shortly the most intrusive identity card system in the world. A CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, a DNA database bigger than any dictatorship has, with thousands of innocent children and millions of innocent citizens on it.

We have witnessed an assault on jury trials, a bolt against bad law and its arbitrary use by the state.

And shortcuts with our justice system, which will make our system neither firm nor fair and a creation of a database state opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers.

The state has security powers to clamp down on peaceful protest and so-called hate laws to stifle legitimate debate, whilst those who incite violence get off scot-free.

This cannot go on, it must be stopped, and for that reason today I feel it is incumbent on me to take a stand.

The partisan Labour hacks think they've got the most wicked wheeze to respond to Davis's stand: don't stand a candidate at all, and let him stew in his own embarrassment. It is indeed a good position to take; that it is politically bankrupt and therefore typical of New Labour is almost superfluous to mention. If Labour decides not to stand a candidate against Davis, then all it will show is that it is simply not prepared to go to the public and have a one-on-one debate about where it has taken us, with in most cases the slightest of public consultation but with the full support of the most authoritarian parts of the "popular" press. If it declines to defend the obscenity of the cost of £93 for an worthless piece of plastic, to support the notion that innocent members of the public should permanently have their DNA and fingerprints stored on a database simply because they were once arrested, and a system by which individuals can be followed around the country that has been completely built by stealth, and instead presents Davis's stand as a lone individual barking at the moon, then it truly deserves to be absolutely trounced at the next general election. If I lived in Davis's constituency, I would be voting Conservative for the first and probably last time.

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Breaking a habit of a lifetime.

However much you hate the Sun, you can't help but admit that this is one of the finest headlines in a long time:

Bongs away in Afghanistan

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008 

I love a free country.

It wasn't quite the humiliation I was hoping for, but any sort of humiliation will do in the circumstances. This fallacious, grubby, mendacious, shitty little party that makes up this country's excuse for a government can't even manage to bribe enough of its own backbenchers to win the vote on 42 days on its own terms. We were elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour, said the past supreme leader. That involved relying on the Conservatives at one point to pass his "trust schools" legislation. Now Brown can boast that he's gone one better than his hated predecessor: he didn't have to rely on the Tories; he just had to prostitute himself to the Democratic Unionists. To call Ian Paisley's party the antithesis of everything that Gordon Brown and Labour claim to stand for might be putting it mildly: last weekend Iris Robinson, when asked to comment on a man who was beaten up in a homophobic attack, suggested to him that he should consider therapy to "cure" him of his homosexuality, and when that understandably caused some controversy, she then said that she didn't consider the man personally to be a sinner but that he was committing a sin which could be "redeemed by the blood of Christ".

It wasn't just the DUP which were bribed. The only Tory to vote with the government was Ann Widdecombe, whom we already knew was going to rebel, and like the DUP, is to the right of Genghis Khan. Also to the right of Attila the Hun is Bob Spink, the Tory MP who jumped before he was pushed, becoming the only UKIP MP in parliament, who also voted with the government. Like both Ann Widdecombe and the DUP, he too has something against gay people, voting very strongly against equal gay rights previously. What a merry band for the Labour party to rely on. Perhaps this is what Gordon Brown meant when he promised change: no longer will we just propose policies that the Conservatives routinely find agreeable, we'll now go further and legislate the way that Dr Ian Paisley would. Our values demand it.

You can't help but get the feeling that this is almost as bad, if not worse than losing the vote, which the government won by the 9 votes that the DUP provided. If the Labour rebellion had held up, then they could have at least argued that it was the dinosaur left, the usual suspects that had voted it down, and reading the 36 Labour rebels, most of them are members of the "awkward squad". Then they could have gone after the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, accusing them of ignoring the overwhelming will of the public themselves. Instead this just looks awful. It further undermines Brown's authority, showing that despite the constant phone calls, the arm-twisting, the begging and the throwing around of money at any cause which a backbencher mentioned, even that wasn't enough to persuade a majority of his majority to lay down both their arms and their principles. It's just pissed off almost the entirety of the media, except for the Sun and possibly the Express, with even the Brown-worshipping Paul Dacre not supporting his friend; further alienated the Labour core that he needs to win back over; and it hasn't even made the police's job any less frantic in the long run because of the hoops which now have to be jumped through to activate the additional time. The phrase, applied previously to the dodgy dossier by Jack Straw of "an absolute Horlicks" comes to mind.

The real opprobrium shouldn't land on the heads of those that have gone with this all along however, but rather on those that ummed and ahhed and then were finally bought off with whatever piecemeal little promise that Brown and the whips made. Salutations then to the supposed left-wingers Jon Trickett and Jon Cruddas, members of the Compass group of MPs that decided after all their pouting and calls for Labour to turn leftwards that supporting the government on the most regressive measure they've come up with recently was a fantastic idea. Congratulations to Mohammad Sarwar, supposedly bought by the disgusting non-concession of compensation for those released without charge after 28 days, but who others suggest was in fact persuaded by the prospect of being able to choose his successor in his seat, i.e., his son. And a big round of applause to Austin Mitchell, who didn't even barter with the whips for personal gain, but instead decided to stand right behind Gordon Brown just as he goes over the top, straight into no man's land:

Labour backbencher Austin Mitchell said he had intended to vote against 42 days, but changed his mind and backed the Government in order to "save Gordon Brown for the nation".

"I support him and I think he would be on his way out if he had been defeated on this," Mr Mitchell told Sky News.

Hell, if we're going to save Brown for the nation, we might as well get him stuffed and put in a glass case. We won't need to do the same with Mitchell; he's already got Brown up his arse, like Matthew Corbett has Sooty.

Still, what a wonderful day for democracy, and what a shining example we've just given to all those banana republics and oil oligarchies. You can almost imagine the conversation the next time the Saudis come to visit and Brown, out of the side of his mouth, mutters something almost inaudible about corruption and human rights. Sorry, says Abdullah, we're not taking any lectures from the bribers-in-chief in the House of Commons and from a country which can lock up suspects for 42 days without charge. We share the same values, don't you remember?

There is of course little chance that 42 days and the bill as a whole will get through the House of Lords, at least prior to the summer recess, meaning that this isn't going to pass onto the statute books just yet. We shouldn't have to rely however on the unelected to defend our civil liberties from such attack; and yet once again an anachronism is called upon to do just that. Every unnecessary dilution of our hard-won liberties in the face of the "terrorist threat" does their work for them, and yet only 36 Labour MPs were prepared to stand up and vote against a measure that will embitter and further stigmatise those that we desperately need to win over. Some will think that shameful. The biggest shame of all however is a Labour leader as hunkered down in his bunker, unwilling to listen as his predecessor, supporting and making deals with those he would once have said he had nothing in common with. If this isn't the beginning of the real start of the downfall of Gordon Brown, then it most certainly deserves to be.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008 

Brown should not just be humiliated, he must be humiliated.

42 reasons to mock the Sun.

The reading and voting on the 2008 Terrorism Bill has finally begun. It's been mentioned before, but it really does seem the mooted extension of detention without charge has been being discussed and debated now for years - because it has. As soon as Blair suffered his first humiliation in the Commons, an extension beyond 28 days was back on the agenda, and it's been evident from then that Gordon Brown isn't just going through with it now because it's a hangover from the Blair era: he's going through with it because he absolutely believes it is needed. Whether he's convinced himself of that in order to attempt to wrong foot the Conservatives is open to question, but there's no doubt that he has always supported an extension. Any attempt to claim that he doesn't and is going through the motions is wishful thinking, as are similar rumours that "Wacky" Jacqui Smith feels the same way. Her contempt for the opposition arguments, once greeting David Davis as he walked in the room after a requested meeting with, "So, you're still a 42-day denier then, are you?", as if his crime was someway similar to Holocaust denial, has always been obvious, as it has with the other irredeemable Labour minister, Tony McNulty.

The 42-day extension isn't the only truly objectionable part of this latest bill, as Judith Sunderland reminds us. Post-charge questioning was first suggested to help negate the need for a further detention without charge extension, but is now in the bill despite that, to doubtless be used and abused by the police for any advantage that they see fit, regardless of the familiar "safeguards" of judicial supervision and recording of all interrogations. Unlike in pre-charge detention, the bill makes clear that if someone who's been charged refuses to answer questions post-charge that it will be potentially held against them in court, limiting the right to silence. Considering that as Peter Clarke made clear in his recent Torygraph article supporting an extension that many "terrorist suspects" opt for silence, this seems to be yet another way of increasing the chances of a successful prosecution, helpful when so many arrested under the Terrorism Acts have previously failed to be charged.

Perhaps logically, the bill also creates another new register for those convicted of terrorist offences, to add to those for sexual and violent offenders. Of concern will be whether those convicted of "lesser offences", such as the heinous crime of downloading "material that may be useful to terrorists", which can apply to almost anything that the prosecution puts its mind to, will fall under this definition that will almost certainly prevent someone from doing almost anything with their lives without being under constant suspicion. Most of those found with material downloaded from the internet have received generally lenient sentences, such as the infamous "lyrical terrorist", who had a 9-month suspended sentence handed down and Abdul Muneem Patel, who served 6-months for having a US army explosives manual under his bed, but the case of Mohammed Atif Siddique, who although took it the next level, received an astonishing 8 years (Abu Hamza, by comparison, for radicalising numerous individuals and preaching murder for years got 7) shows that not everyone who just might be inquisitive is going to get off so easily. Just what is such a register going to do except further embitter those who need to be won over rather than endlessly persecuted? It may well be justified for those sentenced to over 10 years, but the case has not been made for lesser sentences, and unless the proposal is modified to be considered on a case-by-case basis it ought to be rejected.

Then there's the other really objectionable part of the bill. Just get a load of this:

The bill would allow the home secretary to let an inquest take place without a jury if it would involve "the consideration of material that should not be made public in the interests of national security, in the interest of the relationship between the United Kingdom and another country, or otherwise in the public interest."

In other words, the government could more or less never have to let another potentially damaging inquest take place in public again. So broadly is this drawn that it wouldn't just cover the obvious, such as the embarrassing truth that the United States military doesn't give a shit about us and little things like "friendly fire" where they accidentally kill our servicemen or where the police accidentally kill Brazilians who get in the way when they're hunting terrorists, but also inquests into the deaths of those killed in terrorist attacks themselves, where the security services might be embarrassed by how some of those involved slipped through the net, right up to inquests which are required under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, where a public inquiry is a necessity if there is significant evidence of wrongdoing by agents of the state where someone has lost their life. It is entirely open to ministerial interference and abuse, and desperately needs to be either substantially amended or defeated completely.

Desperation is once again wielding its ugly head. As legal adviser after legal adviser comes out against 42 days, the latest being the Scottish Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, with the former holder of the post also supporting her, journalists on both the Sun and Times (spot the connection) made wholly spurious claims that MI5 had actually come out in favour of 42 days after reports stating the fact that it had not requested any further extension. All the statement by Jonathan Evans in fact does is repeat that it has not adopted a position on the matter. After obtaining the amazing support of Sir Hugh Orde, chief of police in Northern Ireland, the Sun is now bigging up the fact that the head of the British Muslim Forum also supports the government, claiming he's the country's "top Muslim", which must be a highly sought after position. His point that Muslims are just as likely to be victims of attacks as the perpetrators is a sound one, but to be victimised twice over as the extension of time will almost certainly blots out any benefit to the Muslim community which it might bring. As Anthony Barnett writes in a lengthy but brilliant post which I think is the best summation of all the reasons to oppose 42 days which I've come across, of the studies that have been undertaken into how legislation and radicalisation affect Muslim communities, all have concluded that such measures are only likely to make things worse, with the trust factor which is so important in disrupting future plots being unnecessarily affected.

The Sun, which did so much last time to help the opposition defeat 90 days, is just as hysterical this time round. It's produced 42 of the most ludicrous, at times hilarious reasons for why 42 days is necessary, which I'd fisk if I'd have the effort to go through such non-sequiturs and statements of the obvious masquerading as reasons. The very first, that there have been more than 15 attempted attacks since 2001 is just waiting to be ripped apart. Even if you count the 21/7 attempts as four separate attacks (also listed as a reason), then add last year's failed Tiger Tiger and Glasgow airport bombings (also listed as a reason), and Nick Reilly's "amateur-hour" attempt last month (also listed as a reason; spot a pattern here?), then you don't come close to 15. The other most laughable reasons are:
An al-Qaeda video obtained by MI5 after 7/7 identified the Queen as a potential terror target. It branded her ‘one of the severest enemies of Islam’.

Christ, if they're prepared to target the Queen they must really mean business! Better vote for 42 days just in case!

15. European lawyers argue it would breach the human rights of terror suspects and be out of step with the rest of Europe.

Yes, this really is a reason. This is the level of contempt the Sun has for the rule of law and civil liberties in general.

The above isn't really aimed at those wavering in the Commons however; it's for public digestion, and the blatant scaremongering which has been on-going for years has had the unsurprising effect that a majority (65% according to one poll, 40% according to today's in the Times, with another 35% with the right safeguards) supports banging up "terrorist suspects" for 42 days. Ask the same question but put "indefinitely" rather than an amount and you probably wouldn't get that dissimilar an answer, as ministers at the time of 90 days claimed they had up to 80% support based on similar polls. This is one of those few measures on which public opinion, while still being very carefully considered, ought to be disregarded. Many will give away liberties if they believe it will bring security, especially if they aren't personally threatened by it, but as that famous quote by Benjamin Franklin has it, those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

In any case, 42 days will not even bring a little temporary safety. 42 days will not prevent terrorist attacks and will be unlikely to stop any potential terrorist from committing an attack that might have been prevented if he had not been released after 28. Can the police really claim that the extra two weeks will be anything other than give them extra leeway should they not be in the mood to sift through such vast amounts of material as they claim to have been? Will something pop up on the 42nd day that couldn't have been found with more rigorous investigation on the 28th?

The latest wheeze from the Labour front-benches has been to offer compensation for those held beyond 28 days who are then subsequently released without charge. All this does is again highlight the extreme deprivation of liberty that 42 days will be, while admitting that innocent individuals will be caught up in it. Is 28 days in a police cell not bad enough already? Why not save the compensation by not extending the limit and instead using it improve police resources, or to win over the very communities that will be most affected by it? This has been Labour's conundrum from the beginning. Rather than concessions and safeguards, all the alterations to the measure have done is make the legislation even worse while still not winning enough Labour MPs over to swing the vote.

Tomorrow Gordon Brown deserves to not just be defeated, but humiliated. If it means the end of his premiership, or the calling of a vote of confidence, then so be it. If it means David Miliband as the next prime minister, then again, so be it. It's only if this illiberal, draconian, unwarranted and completely unnecessary deprivation of hard won civil-rights is again defeated that maybe both the police and the government itself will finally get the message that enough is enough. If Brown wants to martyr himself, clinging to the chapter and verse of Blair before him that the public support it and he's doing what's right, then once again, so be it. Today's news that pensioner poverty, child poverty and inequality have all again risen shows where Brown's real concerns are: on attempting to bludgeon the opposition while winning over the worst of the "popular" press rather than on the core Labour support. His government is finished; tomorrow might well tell us whether he'll manage to last as long as even his beloved party.

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Monday, June 09, 2008 

The real Broken Britain.

Another weekend in Broken Britain. Another teenager killed by a another teenager with a knife. Sorry? What's that? There wasn't this weekend? Oh. We'll go with the footballer charged with dangerous driving then. Or the grim milestone of 100 British servicemen dead in Afghanistan. Is there anything on childhood or teenagers this weekend? A dossier for the UN on how grim life is for many children in this country? Nah, depressing and too detailed to be worth bothering our readers with. Where can we make a single campaigning point from out of this? We can't. Let's just ignore it.

That, and it deals with some of those in society that the tabloids pretend don't exist except when to complain about them. Like the lone asylum seeking youths who the government want to attempt to age so that if they're older than they either say they are or think they are they can deport them. The thousands who are imprisoned and then routinely "restrained", involving a sharp punch to the nose or the bending back of a finger, at such rates that it seems to go far beyond the last resort gaining back of control which such techniques are meant to be restricted to. The 82% of those with learning disabilities that are bullied. The 3.8 million in relative poverty, and the 1 million in poor housing.

This is the real Broken Britain, the one that can't be fixed simply through soundbites, the ones which can't be solved either through the throwing about of money, through getting tough, zero tolerance, or any other cure-all solutions. At its heart is one of the most inherent contradictions of modern life: we love our own children and worry about them to such an extent that we are paranoid and concerned beyond reason at strangers, paedophiles and other monsters, either not letting them out to play until they are well beyond the age at which the parents themselves were allowed to do the same, or constantly keeping them under surveillance which would be more at home in 1984. Strangely, when it comes to other people's children, we seem to loathe them. As mentioned, we lock up a far greater proportion than anywhere else in Europe, and government platitudes that this is only 3% of those involved in the criminal justice system and that other countries imprison those with mental health problems or on other welfare concerns are simply not good enough. When they hang around on street corners, quite often because they have nowhere else to go, and amazingly, because that's what young people and teenagers tend to do, we're terrified of them and demand that they move on. Ministers refuse to condemn such indiscriminate "solutions" to this insoluble problem as the Mosquito, which affects not just teenagers but those up into their early twenties. When they drink alcohol in public, a cause for concern but not blind panic, the police confiscate it and move them on, something shortly to be made even easier. We've had those with personality disorders and mental health problems given anti-social behaviour orders, with ridiculous rules which they can't help that break, often leading to imprisonment. In the typical style of this government, they have been both illiberal and often ineffective, with them becoming badges of honour for some while indefensible for others.

The rot and our attitude towards children sets in when they enter the education system. Even away from the struggles of the middle classes to get their offspring into the "good" schools, buying houses in the catchment areas, thinking ahead as far as the family planning stage, as those with younger siblings usually automatically get a place in the same school while everyone else without the purchasing or personal power suffers, the testing regime which begins at 7 with the SATs. Back when I was 11, the SATs then were still just national indicators taken and then mainly used by the schools for setting when you moved onto secondary school. Since then our glorious Labour government has used the results to produce league tables, turning what had been something where there was no stress or pressure involved whatsoever into something where the children taking them do very much feel it and are drilled accordingly. This is then followed by the SATS at 14, then GCSEs, and if they don't decide they've had enough of been prodded and poked, AS levels at 17 and selected A level modules, then the whole A level shebang at 18, although with the diplomas coming in at the start of the next school year, and other qualifications such as GNVQs and NVQs, this will be changed still further. Again, this wouldn't be so potentially pernicious if for but two things. Firstly, the guidelines have been set so rigorously that schools have realised that they only have to teach what will be on the test and absolutely nothing else apart from the absolute basics, removing context almost entirely and with it the joy of learning, and secondly our infamous capacity for cynicism. Rather than celebrating that results keep getting better, we go in for the usual yearly routine of bemoaning the standards that are slipping away. Thing is, they're right to an extent due to the teaching to the test, but the putting down of the next generation just as they've worked their socks off as they've been asked to is little short of looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. As some have similarly sagely noted, you don't fatten a pig by weighing it all the time, while the league table system has only been to the benefit of those who have a choice, i.e. the ever complaining middle classes, than to anyone else, and that includes the teachers, students and society as a whole.

Which brings us neatly onto the remaining aspect of the real Broken Britain as alluded to at the beginning: the media itself. Research by MORI in 2004 found that 71% of stories about the young in one week painted them in a negative light, with only 14% positive, with 15% neutral. It also found that in stories about the young they themselves didn't have a voice, with just 8% containing a direct quote, and those were doubtless the positive ones. This kind of attitude towards the young doesn't just affect stories about youth crime, it infects stories that should be positive too. When George Sampson won Britian's Got Talent last week, the Sun used his example as how the youth of today could do anything with their lives and avoid crime, as if that was all they aspired to in the first place, while also only pointing out its thinking towards meritocracy: as long as you breakdance badly, as Sampson can, while having the confidence to appear on national television, you too can reach the dizzy heights of not becoming involved in crime. That Sampson, performing on the street to make money for the trips to the auditions was moved on numerous times by the police, was only worth mentioning in passing. It's in fact really worth thinking about: when is there a positive news story about the young that isn't around exam results time with the papers full of the ubiquitous leaping young ladies showing off their midriffs? Our images of the young aren't of those getting on with it and enjoying their lives, they're of those that have either been killed or have killed themselves. While you could say the same about the media and their attitude to almost everything else, it's especially damaging towards some of the most vulnerable. The recent, somewhat merited obsession with knives doesn't just make children themselves more fearful of their own peer group, it also influences their decision to carry such a weapon themselves. The survey that accompanies the UN dossier found that 12% had carried either a knife or a gun in the last 12 months, not separating them as it perhaps should have done, or defining whether this was a penknife or not. 87.1% had not carried any weapons, while 86.6% had never been in trouble with the police, and considering that most will have a scrape at some point that might lead to a warning or at most a caution, that's hardly an alarming statistic either.

The irony of this dossier being drawn up by the children's commissioners while those that appointed them are those that are directly breaching the UN's rights of a child will doubtless not be lost on those who ultimately review it. We've seen it all over the last few months, responses without thinking and purely being out of panic to what is being brewed in the press. Last week Gordon Brown directly answered a demand in the Sun for all those carrying knives for whatever reason to be prosecuted, although he lowered it to those older than 16 rather than to the age of 10. Considering that the heaviest sanction for carrying a knife without due cause in public is a 4-year prison sentence, we could be shortly seeing another rise in the detention of the young, while hardly anyone seems to see such a move as being anything like an answer to the problem. Then we had Jacqui Smith lauding the most alarming of police innovations in "tackling" anti-social behaviour, reported vividly by the Guardian under the headline "harass a hoodie", with police repeatedly taking photographs and video not just of those that are being targeted for repeated offences, but also their friends as well. They're meant to be given an choice as to whether they can be filmed or not, but unsurprisingly this was never offered to them. The scheme was justified while the reported was there under the pretext of two of those filmed subsequently being seen on a school roof, but as they were also filmed whilst playing football, it's not beyond the realms of thought that they were retrieving one. The problems with such schemes are obvious: they make all those filmed suspicious and hostile towards authority, especially when they feel they're doing nothing wrong; they continue to treat those that have committed offences in the past but who might have modified their behaviour as criminals; and it just moves them on from one place to another, where if the problem hasn't been sorted, it just inflicts it there rather than somewhere else. Again, this isn't just being done in one place, as the stop and search powers which are also being prepared to be expanded are also now being used to film those stopped and searched for weapons, regardless of whether they had committed any crime or not, for as the police state, "evidence and intelligence" purposes. This might be less illiberal than the keeping of the fingerprints and DNA of those who have never been found guilty of any offence, but it certainly seems to also be for the ultimate reason of creating a database with similar sort of material.

I myself am guilty here of exaggerating. I don't think this shows this country as broken in any shape or form, and I think the report which found Britain as the worst place in the industrialised West to grow up was probably on the inflammatory side too. The problems we do have though seem to be over emphasised, while those which are under-reported are far more serious. Those in relative poverty will have the lives shaped, not by what they experience by the time they start getting in trouble with the police, but by the younger years, and the care they receive then from their parents and the standards they receive from the state in health, nursery/pre-school then school itself. Those with learning difficulties and those that are themselves carers when they're not yet old enough to properly care from themselves are fenced off from experiencing what their peers do. The biggest problem of all however is how we ourselves think either about them or for them: when our overwhelming emotion is either to be scared of them or to be scared for them, something has gone wrong. It requires a lot more than the responses we've had so far, and will have in response to this dossier, than to get to the bottom of how to alter it.

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The Dorries deficit.

Today has not been a good day to be Nadine Dorries. As Unity and Lib Con both report, Dorries has been asked to explain her use of the incidental expenses provision to fund her blog, something which the rules state it is not to be used for online campaigns against political opponents, something that Dorries has most certainly breached. The parliamentary standards commission can be relaxed about such breaches on occasion, but whether it will considering the current high level of scrutiny of politicians' use of expenses, and Dorries previously being reprimanded for inappropriate use of Commons' stationery is an open question.

Meanwhile, over on said blog, Ms Dorries has been ranting and welcoming her newest employee:

It has not been a nice weekend.

The frenzied attack against Conservative MPs and MEPs, orchestrated by and emanating from the left wing BBC and press has equalled that of an animal in its death throes. The more terminal the position looks for Labour, the more desperate the BBC and the left wing press become.

Ah yes, the old conspiracy theory. The Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation is out to get the Tories! That other often indicted left-wing instrument, the Guardian, has been pushing the Spelman expenses story to such an extent that it put it back on page 13 this morning, with a notably sympathetic report suggesting that Spelman's employment of a nanny had its roots in the local constituency parties' sexism.

Still, what's this?

My daughter Jenny, who is 20, begins work for me this week for six weeks as a paid intern.

She told me I shouldn’t put what she earns on the blog as it is against her human rights. I told her that as an MP's daughter, she doesn’t have any. She is being paid £7.50 per hour.

Just then as it becomes a bit of a no-no for politicians to employ members of their family to do work for them courtesy of the public purse, Dorries has decided to go against the grain. You have to admire that kind of opposition to the current orthodoxy; where would we be if a few MPs weren't such mavericks?

Guido however, that noted slayer of right-wingers (is this right? Ed.) decided to take up Dorries' offer of enquiring whether Jenny actually was working from her staff office. She happened to be out when he called, but he had his call swiftly returned by none other than Dorries herself, who was not impressed by someone actually doing what she invited them to.

There is of course another dimension to this, one slightly forgotten in the fallout surrounding the abortion vote. Last year Alex Hilton (aka one of the writers on Recess Monkey) featured one of the Dorries's daughter's Facebook pages, complete with apparent racism. Dorries was so angered by this slur on her daughter's character that she threatened to involve Schillings, noted tenacious legal rottweilers for Alisher Usmanov. Her outbreak of outrage was slightly tempered by the fact that she had previously splashed photographs of her offspring all across her blog; now she's directly employing one of those that she pledged to protect and called to be kept out of it. First implication of this? Being subjected to the usual amount of lewd comments on Guido's blog. Is there no beginning to Dorries' brilliant deflecting of criticism?

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