Tag Archives: politics

If it weren’t for you meddling kids

Governments love sheep. They adore compliant leggy clouds of wool flocking after them for a sniff of fresh grass. They like to funnel them through the dip for a fungicidal top-up, and wave a pair of clippers at them for a nice shear now and then. And they love to sell them off to Tesco, pocket the cash, and feast on their minty legs.

It’s an old joke: teaching is great, apart from all the students. System administration would be a breeze if not for those damned users. And government would be easy without those pesky citizens demanding rights and freedoms.

Last week’s G8 and eG8 meetings should get us worried. Do not be fooled: the rhetoric about freedom and innovation and unlimited rice pudding is simply designed to give us the warm’n’fuzzies. Yes, we’re supposed to think, they get it. The net is safe! Hooray! Baa! Baa!

The truth is far more sinister. It’s a classic “I love you, but…”. The net is full of lawlessness, of copyright infringement, the governments say, and they want to do something about it.

And again, don’t be fooled. “Copyright” is a trigger word: it polarises, it rehearses the same old arguments from both camps, it focuses the debate on one, narrow aspect. It ensures that big media, the copyright barons, are on the government’s side. It brings out the Cliff Richardses, claiming imminent destitution while dabbing eyes with local Caribbean onions.

Who could deny these artists a living wage? emotes a minister, justifying stricter net regulation on the basis of copyright infringement before nipping off to rip a CD onto an iPod, an act still considered infringement in English law despite now two government-commissioned reports recommending legalisation.

Governments are slow to increase freedoms and quick to reduce them.

But, as I said, don’t be fooled. The copyright thing is a diversion: the government calling “come by” to the media and entertainment sheepdogs and leaving a trail of goodies to distract the noisier lambs.

And it’s not about injunctions, super, hyper or otherwise – though that’s another convenient shiny thing to blind everyone with. Here are two incontrovertible facts:

  • Humans are social animals and love to gossip, even if that’s not what they think they’re doing.
  • Twitter is the most efficient gossip-distribution mechanism yet invented by man.

It thus follows that Twitter radiates gossip around the globe faster than any lawyer can stop it.

But you know what Twitter gossip isn’t? It isn’t doorstepping the people gossiped about. It isn’t rummaging through their bins. It isn’t intercepting their phone messages. It isn’t papping them on the beach and tutting at some tiny variation from this week’s idea of perfection on pages one, two and thirteen. It isn’t publishing lurid details of their private lives on trumped-up notions of public interest.

Privacy invasion and harassment by the redtops – and not just the redtops – is much worse than Twitter gossip for those invaded and harassed: but the government doesn’t legislate about that.

Twitter spreads gossip, some of it true, some of it false, just like email does, and the telephone, and the larynx. And guess what: we already have laws about the false stuff. We already have judges struggling to understand social networking, refusing to recognise tweeted jokes borne of frustration but plainly not menacing.

Twitter is communication, like any other form – but faster and with a global audience. It’s many-to-many, not one-to-one or one-to-many. (And, lest I be accused of undue Twitophilia, so is Facebook.)

This is why G8 governments want to regulate it. This is why they are afraid of it. It is no coincidence that governments have recently woken up to the possibilities of many-to-many. They’ve seen it help to disrupt north Africa and the Middle East all year, and drag them into a civil war none of them want to be a part of but all of them know they must be, thanks to what none of them want to admit: oil. Governments all think: could we be next? What would it take to bring down a western government? It might be on the verge of happening in Greece or Spain.

Governments fear nothing more than their own citizens rising up against them.

This latest shepherding tactic about privacy and copyright is a front, a sleight-of-hand, an attempt to outflank those sheep who sense the approaching knives. I suspect G8 governments believe, like the Romanian communist leaders of the 1980s who ordered the population to hand over their typewriters as they made it easier to disseminate subversive material, that by asserting control over the means of communication they can preserve control over the populace.

Western governments are lumbering beasts but they’re not daft enough to believe they could simply switch off internet and mobile phone services if the people start making too much of a noise, as happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Such an act would only be counterproductive were it even possible, and they’d have to take over the TV stations too. They want subtler control, like mandatory filters. Don’t like this Twitter account? Filter it out. Hashtag chatter a bit near the mark? Filter it out. All “for legal reasons” or for the “protection of children”. It’s all possible: China does it.

But the USA has the first amendment! Free speech! Yes, and that’s a qualified privilege. You can still be prosecuted for crying “fire” in a crowded theatre, or for what someone decides is treasonous speech. Some US legislators and judges believe that linking to a page that contains links to copyright-infringing material should itself be a criminal act. And it seems you can be arrested for dancing at the Jefferson Memorial.

There is nothing to stop a determined government, with a supine or bought legislature, from enacting laws that restrict our freedoms on the internet. There is nothing to stop them: except the people.

I realise it’s easy to see spooks lurking behind every bush, to see malignancy and conspiracy where there is none. Yet history shows that good intentions wither and weather, like rivulets of erosion in the majesty of the Sphinx. RIPA surveillance powers, used to monitor dog fouling. Anti-terrorism laws, used to harass and detain photographers. Laws about “improper use of a public electronic telecommunications network,” used to interpret as “menacing” an obvious joke on Twitter by a frustrated flyer eager to see his girlfriend, and ruining his life in the process.

Governments and their officers, whether deliberately or not, tend to overreach. Powers once taken are hard to let go. Our ancestors fought for our freedoms; they are entrusted to us by our descendants. We hand over those freedoms at our peril.

Or perhaps you believe what the governments say: that regulating the internet is necessary to protect blah, blah, blah. I offer these questions:

  • The internet must be regulated by government, but the press is allowed to regulate itself. Why do you think that is?
  • Do you trust this government? Yes? How about the government after next?

Baa! Baa!


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It’s not about the children

It’s a standard technique in government: use an interview to float an idea to gauge reaction, and to “suggest” a solution lest a more draconian legislative route be hypothetically taken. It’s the governmental equivalent of plonking a horse’s head in the bed. Even better if the interview appears near Christmas, when Paxman et al are hibernating and the fiercest political cross-examination you’re likely to get occurs on a pastel Daybreak sofa between Michael Buble and a Chuckle brother.

Thus it was with weary inevitability that I saw a weekend newspaper interview in which the (Conservative) coalition minister for t’internet Ed Vaizey muttered about making ISPs responsible for filtering adult content, and forcing consumers to opt-in to porn. Of course, since the internet is for porn according to Avenue Q, it should really be the other way round: get the porn by default, and opt-in to the non-porn.

What does Vaizey actually say? “I think it’s very important that it’s the ISPs that come up with solutions to protect children.”

Ah, to protect children. The sainted kiddywinks, the mere mention of which serves to render all argument or dissent invalid. Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Well, it’s not about children, obviously. That’s a standard device used to justify any number of actions (and yet, still, the media laps it up). Here’s a tip: “for the children” means “we have an agenda and we’re deploying the C-bomb to distract you.” If the safety of children were truly the driving factor here, then I could suggest many more pressing matters.

For example, how about a ban on parents smoking around their children, particularly in enclosed environments such as cars?

Or let’s look at religion, where articles of faith are presented as fact, in which children can be indoctrinated with stuff and nonsense about sky fairies of one flavour or another with the full consent of the state, before they are old enough to be able to form their own opinions. And yet religion does not come with a warning sticker. (Don’t get me started on Catholic priests.)

As I said, it’s not about children. But hypothetically, were those proposals to be made, you just have to conjugate the verb: I protect children, you want a nanny state, he looks like a Belgian paedo. It’s all a matter of politics. Politically a government couldn’t win support to ban smoking around children, or the practice of religion. But it looks like it thinks it might be able to get away with the porn thing.

Like Parkinson’s law, the state tends to expand to fill the uncontrolled space available. Politics, or economics, or pragmatism, or other factors, determine whether or not the expansion is achievable in practice. It floats a proposal, to gauge initial reaction. It couches everything in terms designed to press the buttons of the electorate (“for the children”). It “concedes” meetings with those groups who actually know what they’re talking about, and lets the ignorant public Have Their Say. It performs the wildest acrobatics to be seen to “listen” and “engage”.

And then it makes a political decision. Not about the safety of the children, but of its majority. Could a bill pass? Will the Lords kill it? Will the Murdoch press support it? Politics is the art of the achievable, a concept some seem unable to grasp even with a compromise-driven coalition government in office.

Decision made to press on, it legislates with only a passing glance to the consultation with experts and public. There’s now a political agenda at work. The Opposition opposes, not through enlightenment but simply to fulfil its political purpose to oppose and obstruct regardless of the merits. (“We will support the government where it makes sense,” says every opposition leader, and again the media laps it up, frothing about a New Politics, but it never happens.)

How will this sordid dance play out with Vaizey’s hare-brained idea? Well, the ISPs and groups like ORG will patiently explain, with diagrams, that Problem One is to define porn, and that Problem Two is to correctly classify porn according to that definition when a human or algorithm is presented with some content. They will say that in any automatic or manual system there will be both false positives (non-porn wrongly classed as porn, such as educational materials, advice columns or Daily Mail stories about X Factor) and false negatives (porn wrongly classed as non-porn, which will happen for all sorts of reasons up to and including bugs, mendacity and pressing the wrong button). They will strongly recommend a well-defined, transparent corrective mechanism to allow for appeals, and they will ask why the hell are we being asked to be surrogate parents anyway?

The politicians will steeple their fingers and nod politely, making notes including pictures of boobies and willies and giggling amongst themselves. Then they’ll make simplistic analogies to TV watersheds and the controversial and secret Internet Watch Foundation blacklist of what somebody unknown once claimed to be child porn. They will invoke holy phrases like “children are our future” and that pol fave “our children, and our children’s children.”

And then when the experts have rolled their eyes for the nth time and left muttering, chances are we’ll see a bill that establishes an anonymous group of people who will, with only the flimsiest of oversight and a 99-step appeals process culminating in a rubber stamp of the word DENIED, maintain a secret list of verboten URLs. The members of the group will not be named “for their own safety, and to avoid nobbling” (they’ll snigger at the word “nobbling”). The list will be secret “to deter use of technical measures to bypass its restrictions” (despite the experts having told them that security through obscurity is a Bad Idea). The public will be assured that the system is foolproof (despite the experts explaining that the biggest fool is the fool calling any technology foolproof).

And the first URL on the list post-enactment will be the Wikileaks du jour. Because the Act will, of course, contain that other holy phrase of our age, “national security,” which can be applied to anything anyone decides it can be applied to. Additional URLs blocked will try and fail to stop copyright infringement on films, TV shows and recorded music, because some idiots still think that’s possible. And there’ll be a push to ban web sites for violent video games, movies and TV shows, too, because there always is.

For additional Kafka points, you will naturally commit a criminal offence if you access a URL on the list you are not allowed to see.

It’s all “for the protection of children,” you understand.

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Thoughts on the coalition

I didn’t vote Liberal Democrat for a Tory government. I voted Liberal Democrat because I wanted a Liberal Democrat government.

But I’m not naïve. Despite those heady days when the polls went mad, and a couple of secret what-if moments shared between me and the BBC’s election prediction applet, I never truly expected Nick Clegg to end up as PM. The most likely outcomes were always either a hung parliament or a small-to-workable Tory majority, with a faint chance – given the vagaries of our current electoral system – of a Labour minority government.

I would have preferred the Lib Dems to enter a coalition or confidence-and-supply agreement with Labour, if possible, and without Gordon Brown as PM. The election result made this unworkable: Labour plus Lib Dem still wouldn’t make a majority. There was talk of a “rainbow coalition” including every man and his dog, but such a government wouldn’t last the year. Not the best way to achieve anything.

So the only feasible outcome, discounting an immediate second election that nobody wanted and only the Conservatives could afford, was a Tory/Lib Dem agreement of some kind.

Not ideal. It’s no secret that I think David Cameron is a fake, a PR man. I think George Osborne will blunder his way through the job of Chancellor. I fear Cameron dragging back Tory grandees who still have a thing for Margaret Thatcher. I fear a return to the bad old days of Section 28 and the Poll Tax, albeit in different, better-branded forms.

But, but, but. At least we don’t have the “strong, stable government” that Cameron craved: a sizable Tory majority. That’s the goal of all parties, of course. They want to be in control, to use their electoral mandate to pilot HMS Britain to port or to starboard according to their manifesto or newspaper baron of choice.

People want “strong, stable government” too, but not in the sense that political parties want “strong, stable government”. Parties want power; people want a better life for themselves and their families and friends. People want governments that do the Right Thing. People want fairness, honesty, respect.

We’ve seen the results of the party political version of “strong, stable government” that large majorities give us – Thatcher’s divisive, dictatorial 1980s and Blair’s war-mongering, fear-mongering 2000s. In the last thirty years we’ve now had just two changes of ruling party, counting this one. Eighteen years of Conservative government – “strong, stable government”, gradually weakening and festering into corruption, sleaze, decay, a step too far, a change of leader, in-fighting, and back-stabbing – followed by thirteen years of Labour government – “strong, stable government”, gradually weakening into corruption, sleaze, decay, a step too far, a change of leader, in-fighting and back-stabbing.

I don’t want that again.

It’s my belief that a coalition government would never have passed the Poll Tax, or Section 28, or ID cards, or railway privatisation, or PFI, or the Digital Economy Act, amongst other bad laws. A hung parliament by definition means no party has a mandate to ram through its own legislative agenda: it must work with others.

A coalition government by necessity dulls the sharp edges of party purity and rabid dogma. Like the memento mori of ancient Rome, in a coalition government the leadership is constantly reminded of its own mortality, its own limitations. Instinct might drive Cameron right; Clegg’s reminding whisper should hold him steady: the desire to keep his job will be strong. Clegg can bring down the government, and Cameron knows it.

Joining a coalition doesn’t mean selling out and abandoning your principles: it means compromise. It means sacrificing some of your stuff to get some of your other stuff done – and at the same time stopping some of the stuff you don’t want done from happening. I’m sure I won’t like everything the coalition does – but then I never expect to like everything a government of any colour does.

I might be wrong. Perhaps the Lib Dems are walking, smiling, into an abyss and David Cameron’s perception filter has fooled them all. Perhaps we’ll suddenly be at war with Eurasia again. Perhaps Nick Clegg is actually a cyborg sent from the future to prevent John Redwood again from learning Welsh. I don’t know.

But right now it looks as though the Liberal Democrats finally have a chance to implement some of their policies. If we’re lucky – very lucky – we’ll change to a fairer voting system. And at the next election people might vote for what they want, rather than in fear of what they might get.


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Given enough eyeballs, all politicians are shallow

Alert readers may have perceived the thundering cloven hooves of an approaching General Election. Thousands of women are even now bearing down heavily to ensure sufficient raw materials for baby-smooching photo ops with slobbering, faux-chummy moat-owners and mortgage flippers. Between now and – most likely – May 6th (curse my predictive non-skills!) – pols of all flavours, none of them particularly lickable, will promise the earth while secretly planning to deliver a couple of inconsequential sods.

It’s a familiar, draining process. Manifestos full of smiling multiracial faces, hero-posing alongside commitments that mysteriously become aspirations for the n+1th term as soon as the ballot boxes go back into the ballot box box. Those smiling faces, like the swirling angels at the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, melt and burn into evil spirits sucking the souls of the electorate into a Westminster-based heaven allegory. Er, spoiler alert.

During the campaign we’ll see interview after interview where the usual reporters ask the usual questions and get the usual non-answers: “I’m glad you asked me that, Krishnan, let me answer something else”; “Look, the real question you should be asking is…”; “You should be focusing on the things the public care about, like…”; “Typical of the left/right wing BBC to…”. And my favourite double act: “The only poll that matters is the one on…” vs “Our internal polling is showing something entirely different”. Over, and over, and over…

This happens because complete honesty tends to be a career-limiting move for a politician. To climb the greasy pole – to even grasp your hands around its base – you need to become one with the grease. You don’t so much climb up the pole as oleaginate via osmosis and rise by capillary action. Dare to level with the electorate – by which I mean truly level, not say “Let me be clear here” because that’s code for “I am saying words to fill dead air while I formulate my non-response” – and you risk a roughing up by the whips, the party Dementors, and possibly defenestration.

Voters hate the evasion, distraction, rhetorical tricks, petty squabbling, dishonesty, finger-pointing, underhand tactics, etc, etc, used by politicians. They also hate it when broadcasters let politicians off the hook. Jeremy “Did you threaten to overrule him?” Paxman’s apparently accidental stuffing of Michael Howard in 1997 is a beautiful, shining, oh so rare exception. Discos and triscos typically degenerate into playground arguments over Top Trumps moderated by freshly graduated teachers eager to please both sides, when what’s really needed is a grumpy old soak not afraid to administer a good, old-fashioned clip round the ear.

I fear there is no great desire amongst broadcasters to fix this problem. It’s mostly all about the news cycle, the trivia, the access. I fully expect this time to see Sky News broadcasting live from David Cameron’s freshly waxed anus. There’ll be breathless reporters deployed like paratroopers at Arnhem to chase after any suit with a rosette, and eager to magnify the tiniest fluff or mullet-related punch-up to grotesque proportions, vomiting Westminster twittle-twattle to a British public thoroughly, self-throttlingly bored of the whole thing by day two.

I’m atypical; I love elections and TV election coverage. Indeed I have an honorary degree in Swingometry from McKenzie College of Psephology and Knitting, Vancouver, BC. And yet even I get utterly sick of the same old faces spouting the same old stories and getting away with it. I’ll be shouting at the screen – while stabbing my politician-shaped voodoo doll with a selection of the very finest cutlery – as reporters move swiftly down lines of suited twerps bleating their non-responses, then wrapping them up because they’ve only got twenty-five seconds before the next update from Jeremy Thompson wedged firmly up Cameron’s bumcrack.

But this election is, I think, going to be different and a little disruptive. This election will be the first bottom-up election.

Linus’ law: Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. This works just as well in politics: given enough eyeballs, all politicians are shallow. We’ve now reached critical mass. Someone outside the mainstream media, at some point during the campaign, will discover something important. It might be one of the ‘celebrity’ political bloggers, like Iain Dale or Guido Fawkes, already breaking stories; it might be an unknown. It could be a street urchin or ragamuffin of some kind who YouTubes a candidate twatting about. There are signs of bottom-up already: look at www.mydavidcameron.com.

Twitter will spread the key stories – true or not – twice round the world before rolling news has cut back from the weather. It’s going to be a shock to the political system, and everyone will be fair game. It might even change a few results.

None of this can prevent manifestos full of self-destructing promises, interviews as enlightening as the test card, and 24-hour CamAnusCam. And the Westminster of tomorrow won’t look that different to the Westminster of today, whoever ends up kissing hooves with Queenie. But it’s a start.

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War stories

Each of us has a war story or two. By which I mean an actual story about an actual war, not just an anecdote about that time a skinhead threatened you with a kumquat. I have several, almost none of which involve me. They’re family stories, handed down by our family’s official teller of stories, my aunt.

Stories such as: how World War II broke out on her fifth (I think) birthday; how Uncle Bill (her mum’s brother) was “the only Canadian” on the beach at Dunkirk; how he, later in the war, happened to meet up with (I think) his cousin and another friend or family member in the middle of the North African campaign (there’s a photo somewhere). In case you’re wondering, her father – my grandad – was in a reserved occupation and didn’t see active service.

When I hear these stories I invariably ask myself how I would have fared in that war – or worse, World War I. When I was twenty I was at college, watching on TV amazed as the Berlin Wall came down; in World War II I might have been fighting in the skies over Kent, resisting what seemed an inevitable German invasion. In World War I I’d have been in the trenches.

I remember in January 1991 when the Gulf War started: a newsflash jumping into coverage of a football match, TV quickly patching into the CNN feed from Baghdad: chunky graphics and Bernard Shaw on a crackly phone line describing the bombs falling. I was working on my final year project and the adrenalin rush made my hands shake enough that I couldn’t write. I expected, as did many others, that Saddam would use chemical weapons on Israel – live on TV. We saw news reporters in gas masks; Kate Adie in a tent “in eastern Saudi Arabia”; John Simpson kicked out of Baghdad. It took just a few weeks to kick Saddam out of Kuwait.

A more local conflict followed as Yugoslavia imploded and NATO finally, reluctantly, acted. War in Europe, but not a european war. John Simpson dodging bombs in Belgrade this time.

And then Bush came to power and used the attacks on New York and Washington to bring his own idea of democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. I agreed with the original goals in Afghanistan, but I knew the Iraq war was a sham as did millions of others. A shameful war, justified by lies, supported by sycophants, and driven by fundamentalist Christian ideology. The only plan to invade and conquer, the only goal revenge, the only possible result an entire region destabilised for decades. I watched on TV; sadly I’m still watching.

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, and the deaths continue. Democracy in Afghanistan has resulted in a corrupt election with Karzai last week declared the winner. Why are we still fighting this war?

Gordon Brown made a speech yesterday on the UK’s Afghanistan strategy. Here’s one passage:

“The first priority of any government is to provide security for its people. It is not sustainable to subcontract that task indefinitely to the international community. So the expansion and training of the Afghan army and police must be the new government’s first priority.”

And then three paragraphs later:

“President Karzai agreed with me yesterday that the first priority of his new government would be to take decisive action against corruption.”

I wonder which of the many first priorities Karzai will tackle first, and which he will only tackle first.

Why is our “strategy” on this war so apparently cobbled together that ridiculous, contradictory statements like that can get into major, supposedly defining speeches? Why are we still fighting this war?

Brown defines success in Afghanistan:

“We will have succeeded when our troops are coming home because the Afghans are providing security themselves, continuing the essential work of denying the territory of Afghanistan as a base for terrorists.”

If we pulled out all our troops today, who would provide security? The Afghans themselves. There: done. In any meaningful sense this is not a measurable way to define victory. The reality is: success is when we declare success. Why are we still fighting this war?

Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday. I wear a poppy. I observe the two minutes’ silence. I’m grateful that men and women fought and died, and continue to fight and die, so that I may live in a world in which I don’t have to battle in the skies over Kent, or in the trenches, or in the deserts of Iraq or Afghanistan, or anywhere else. I won’t have any first-hand war stories to pass on to the offspring I also won’t have.

But I want the war stories that today’s soldiers tell their children and grandchildren to be about wars that were fought for a just cause, for a clear goal, for honourable reasons. The worst, most poignant war stories don’t end with death or destruction, but with one word: “why?”.

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Evidence versus expedience

Last Friday Home Secretary Alan Johnson fired the government’s chief drugs advisor, Professor David Nutt, for speaking out against government policy: for saying the unsayable, that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than cannabis. This inconvenient truth has been, for a long time, the elephant in the room – metaphorically rather than hallucinogenically. Indeed a rare non-rubbish Horizon covered the same ground some time ago.

But governments don’t govern by evidence: they govern by expedience.

One death from tobacco-related lung cancer or alcohol-related liver failure is a statistic. One death from ecstasy is a front-page story, a week of leader articles and why-oh-why fodder for an officeful of lazy, smoking, drinking hacks. The Daily Mail has more influence on government drugs policy than any scientist, or any fact.

(Similarly, deaths on the road are considered “acceptable”. Crushed between two 12m, 44 tonne, six axle articulated lorries carrying fizzy weak Eurobeer to satiate the Friday night binges lubricating the traditional British weekend? Statistic. Span off when driving too fast on an icy road to die in a ditch polluted by a local factory? Statistic. Unless of course you were daft enough to get in a car driven by a drunk bodyguard and didn’t wear your seatbelt: then you’re the People’s Statistic.)

Political expediency ensures that tobacco and alcohol are legal and (not particularly well) regulated, despite the costs in lives, in time and in money. That same expediency rejects the evidence-based analysis that would logically lead to legalisation and regulation of (according to Nutt) lower-harm drugs like cannabis. The belief is that the votes of Middle Britain would go elsewhere, at least in the present generation, mostly thanks to sky-falling-in tabloid articles written by journalists who, of course, have never taken any illegal drugs themselves.

Politically, David Nutt had to go. He had proclaimed the emperor’s nudity from the rooftops and most significantly he had criticised the government: the emperor was not only starkers, but a big old Fatty McFat Fat.

I have no problem with the notion that “advisers advise, politicians decide”. I do think that scientists should keep out of politics, mainly for their own sanity. But this goes both ways: politicians should keep out of science. By all means ignore some or all of the advice you’re given, as long as you don’t pretend in public that the advice is something else. Instead, tell us why you’ve rejected it. Plain and simple. We might or might not agree, and we might argue vehemently that you’re wrong, but we’d respect the honesty.

And we desperately need an honest debate about drugs: about the science and about the politics. Sadly that doesn’t seem possible. Scandalously Channel 4 News hasn’t even been able to persuade a single representative of the Home Office to appear on its programme to answer questions about David Nutt’s dismissal.

I guess it’s not seen as politically expedient.


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The invisible revolution

People generally notice that they’re taking part in a revolution. Barbarians-at-the-gates revolutions with Bolshevik oiks toppling Romanov nobs and their imperialist haemophiliac ways are self-evident thanks to the bodies in the streets and the widespread clampdown on interesting haberdashery. But we’re in the middle of a revolution now, a revolution most people aren’t even barely aware of.

Two skirmishes in this revolution have taken place in the last week. They’re not the first and won’t be the last, but they’re a classic demonstration of cluelessness from the Old Guard.

The first can be summarised in one word: Trafigura. You, like me, had probably not heard the name before this week. The first inkling I had of a percolating story was a tweet from Ben Goldacre suggesting that the Guardian had been gagged from reporting Parliament. The bare facts emerged pretty quickly: this tweet revealed all to me a short time later. What followed, and the story behind it, is well documented so I shan’t bother here. The salient point to make is: welcome to a different world. In this world, sufficient eyeballs routes around censorship. Maybe not immediately, but ultimately.

The second skirmish involves the Daily Mail and is ongoing. One of its columnists, Jan Moir, wrote a hateful story that appeared on Friday morning entitled Why there was nothing “natural” about Stephen Gately’s death. As with Trafigura an immediate twitstorm ensured that the bigotry was well publicised. Comments on a Daily Mail article are usually of the string-em-up, ship-em-back variety, but not on this one: the writer’s views were soundly condemned. The Daily Mail changed the story’s headline (but not its content) in an attempt to paper over the cracks, and the article’s author has issued a non-apology apology. But more importantly for the paper, companies have pulled their adverts from the story.

People power again, yes; big deal, nothing new. But it’s yet another demonstration of the crucial difference between the bolshies and the nobs. What Trafigura’s legal team Carter-Ruck and the Daily Mail’s journalists don’t get is that people – more people every day – now realise that power, real power, is bottom-up not top-down. That’s at the core of this revolution.

Jan Moir complains in her non-apology that there is “clearly a heavily orchestrated internet campaign” to accuse her of homophobia. Excuse me while I point and laugh at the deluded woman. The Daily Mail is itself massively guilty of orchestrating campaigns in a traditional top-down approach: it was the Daily Mail that hyped up the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross story, encouraging its readers to complain en masse to the relevant authorities about something they hadn’t themselves heard. That’s orchestration. Top-down.

Moir’s story about Gately offended individuals, who commented or tweeted or blogged to make their opinions known to others. Those others read the article themselves, made up their own minds, and communicated likewise. The network effect ensured that, pretty soon, word spread to connectors (to use Gladwell’s term from The Tipping Point) like Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan, Charlie Brooker and Derren Brown who have thousands of followers. Bottom-up. (I’m not using the word viral because that makes me think of marketing, and this is more fundamental.)

The same effect a few days earlier ensured everyone knew about Trafigura and its “super-injunction” gagging order on the media, even if they hadn’t read the Guardian and put two-and-two together. People also soon learned that Wikileaks held a copy of the Minton report, which says that Trafigura’s oil waste, dumped in west Africa, was potentially toxic. Meanwhile traditional media couldn’t even mention the report’s existence. Last night Trafigura caved again, since the ants had well and truly unstitched the bag to let out the potentially toxic pussy, and the Guardian became free to publish the report. Trafigura and Carter-Ruck bodged this up in as bodgy a way as it is possible to bodge, and questions are now being asked about how, on earth, could a judge issue such a super-injunction in the first place. And why do we have super-injunctions anyway?

Publicity about Moir’s article ensured the Press Complaints Commission web site was hammered out of existence for a time. But the PCC won’t do anything of consequence: it’s a toothless body, controlled by the newspapers themselves, that exists as a sop to politicans afraid to regulate an industry that knows all about their cupboard-based body parts. In any case its policy is to “normally accept complaints only from those who are directly affected by the matters about which they are complaining.” Which is handy.

The way to deal with the Daily Mail is, I hope by now, obvious: bottom-up. Continue to publicise its bigotry and hatred. Make its advertisers pull out.

The two incidents I’ve highlighted aren’t isolated cases. Earlier in the year a single tweet by Graham Linehan started off a “we love the NHS” campaign on Twitter to fight back against uninformed or deceitful comments from those on the side of private health insurers in the US healthcare debate. Many right-wingers in the UK proved they Just Didn’t Get It by claiming this was a Labour party campaign: nope. Bottom-up, not top-down.

Perhaps I’m being idealistic. Perhaps this is merely a Prague Spring of freedom before the tanks roll in. But I don’t think so. People may not be brandishing pitchforks but change is afoot and the world will be a very different place in ten years or so. At the moment we’re still clanking our way to the summit of the rollercoaster, and don’t have the faintest idea what’ll happen on the way down.


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Speaker Bercow!

Well well, the publicity over the near-whipping of MPs to support Margaret Beckett backfired. And we now have Speaker Bercow, who – say those in the know – has more support in the Labour party than from his now-former colleagues in the Conservative party.

He’s a better choice than Sir George Young in any case, the “bicycling baronet”, who once infamously described the homeless as people you step over when leaving the opera. (Not that Bercow is unstained – his relatively left-wing views today stand in contrast to the swivel-eyed right-wingery of his past.)

Bercow promises reform. What will be his first reforming act, I wonder? I still remember the shock and awe when Betty Boothroyd dispensed with the wig, though it’s fair to say she had the hair for it. Perhaps Bercow will do without the long gown traditionally worn (and carried by some peasant) while processing from Speaker’s House to the chamber. Perhaps he’ll abandon the entire fancy dress; I suspect the skies might fall were he to do so. It would certainly be a signal; but only a signal.

As I write, some ancient ritual is about to take place by which the Queen, via the Lords, confirms him in his illustrious position. Naturally, this involves processions, Black Rod and flamboyant haberdashery. I look forward to watching it on a news channel with some idiot blathering over the top. Me, probably.

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The legitimacy of Speaker Beckett

Today, MPs vote (in a secret ballot for the first time, under new procedures) to elect a new Speaker for the House of Commons.

Of course, since the expenses scandal that brought down Michael Martin and effectively ended the political careers of several of them, MPs are taking excruciating care over this new election. There is complete transparency, there are no hidden agendas, and everything is happening in a new-broom, bipartisan spirit.

Not a bit of it.

Avaragado’s first rule of politics:

Wherever three or more people are gathered together, there shall be politics

This is natural, since we’re social animals. Gossip, bitching and backstabbing have been going on since we had the ability to communicate.

Avaragado’s second rule of politics:

Wherever three or more politicians are gathered together, there shall be corruption

The early favourite was Conservative John Bercow, seen as a reformist – ie, what the public seems to want, and what the Commons needs. But he also has some wacky ideas like taking Parliament round the country, which reminds me of that recurring sketch from The Day Today of the Bureau de Change on the back of a lorry.

But now the smart money’s on Margaret Beckett. Why? Because it seems the government whips are “encouraging” Labour MPs to back her. She’s the “Stop Bercow” candidate. So much for the new broom, for transparency, for reform.

Would she be a good Speaker? Possibly. But that won’t be why she’ll be elected, if she gets the job.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that someone who until only last month was Housing Minister (and who occasionally sat in Cabinet) – and, let’s not forget, who was Tony Blair’s last Foreign Secretary, and who stood in as Labour leader after John Smith’s death – is not going to be seen as entirely independent.

One of the reasons many MPs didn’t like Michael Martin was the perception that he favoured Labour. How is that going to be fixed by the Labour whips installing a recently ex-minister as his replacement? There is always going to be a whiff of distrust.

The Westminster bubble indeed. Entirely clueless, the lot of them.

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On Brown and constitutional reform

I still think he’s doomed. But I watched Gordon Brown’s statement today on constitutional reform with interest. It’s well known that he’s put the kibosh on many previous attempts at constitutional reform over the last twelve years, so why the sudden conversion?

It’s not a conversion. It’s politics as usual.

We now have, at most, less than twelve months until a general election. There isn’t time to enact huge constitutional changes. They can get some things done – reform of the expenses system, for example – but changing the electoral system? And a fully elected House of Lords? They won’t happen this side of the election.

Brown is talking about these things now to place a wedge between the Labour party and the Conservatives. The perception at Westminster is that the people want reform of the expenses system (which is not strictly true: people want trustworthy politicians), so Brown’s strategy is to link that in people’s minds with more fundamental reforms that he knows Cameron and the Conservatives disagree with. Brown talks about expenses reform, House of Lords reform and electoral system reform as one item, knowing that Cameron only wants the first of those and would actively campaign against the others.

Cameron’s message is “change”, by which he means a general election now. Brown is trying to paint this as “no change”: Cameron doesn’t want reform, he wants to keep the same old gentlemen’s agreements, the same old 19th Century practices, same old Tories, etc. Any attempt by Cameron to disagree with any of the proposed reforms will be presented as opposing all reform.

I don’t think Brown believes in the level of constitutional reform he talked about today. There will be talk, but little action: talking shops, proposals, committees, discussions. Some laws will pass – the expenses stuff, internal Westminster changes – but the big stuff will be punted to the next Labour manifesto, where it can be safely ignored since it looks like Cameron will win anyway.

As a Lib Dem of course I believe that we need electoral reform. I think we need some form of proportional representation, as long as we retain the 1:1 link between an MP and a constituency.

If this means the BNP is represented at Westminster, so be it. The bright lights will reveal their warts. Thatcher was wrong in the 1980s when she tried to deny Sinn Fein the “oxygen of publicity” (leading to the surreality of TV interviews in which actors dubbed the voices of Gerry Adams and others). And the anti-fascist egg-throwers were wrong yesterday when they gave the BNP free airtime in which they did not have to account for their obnoxious views.


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