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Is Sadiq Khan right to say that Labour is now the party of civil liberties?

by Robert Sharp     September 20, 2013 at 9:05 am

Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked of predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government.

Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite.

For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:

And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.

If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible.

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance.

Meanwhile, at the Liberal Democrat annual conference, delegates have approved motion F41 [PDF], a reaffirmation of their party’s committment to human rights and the Human Rights Act.

These debates make me happy. What Khan and McNally’s comments show is that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have begun to see the promotion of human rights as a vote winner. This is by no means a given in British politics, and not something to be taken for granted.

Regardless of Labour’s past failures, or the Liberal Democrats’ current, shaky record in office, we should still applaud these commitments to protect the Human Rights Act.

The alternative is the gutting or abolition of the Act, and a withdrawl from the European Convention on Human Rights, which the Conservatives are threatening to do (David Cameron even had a populist pop at the idea of human rights in a conference speech before he became Prime Minister).

When a politician speaks out in defence of human rights, the public need to show their approval of such statements and publicise them widely.

Who knows, if the politicians see that such positions are a vote winner, we may find that Nick Clegg is inspired to fight a little harder for rights and liberties in this parliament… and that Secretary of State Sadiq Khan is emboldened to defend and extend human rights in the next.

If anything, internet openness is showing what women have to put up with

by Robert Sharp     August 5, 2013 at 1:59 pm

This post by sexologist Jill McDeviitt is quite astonishing. It chronicles her rage at being sent an entirely inappropriate e-mail by a man she had never met, and his subsequent approach to her parents when she threatened to publish the e-mail on her blog.

It is yet another story of how men send women inappropriate, disgusting and/or downright illegal messages over the Internet – an issue that we have been discussing all week.

What I found particularly revelatory is when she describes how her parents behaved, when the man (he was the husband of someone who worked with Jill’s step-mother) contacted them:

I’m left to marvel not just at your individual misogyny, but also the infantilizing sexism that exists in the back corners and in the cobwebs of the brains of everyone involved.

Receiving a repugnant email from you, a strange man, is bad enough. But what makes this case so compelling is how you were able to entangle my normally feminist and self-aware family, illuminating just how deep tolerance of predatory men goes in our society.

I suspect many women, and people from ethnic minorities, already know what it is like to be denied the benefit of the doubt in this manner.

But as a white, middle-class male, such experiences are alien to me. In fact, it is literally unimaginable: I cannot really conceive of how such a situation could possibly arise for me. Its fascinating to have an insight into the unfairness that some women are subjected to, and to understand their indignation at having to put up with it.

And the reason that such behaviour continues in this enlightened age is precisely that people like me find it difficult, or even impossible, to imagine. The mental chain of events that took place in McDevitt’s anecdote are not unique. It was a similar combination of disbelief and sexist assumptions that allowed Jimmy Saville and Stuart Hall to perpetrate their abuse. We need more stories like Jill’s, to cure ourselves of our incredulity.

In the debate about sexism and Tweeted rape threats, there is a certain strain of thought that says that the technology is too open and needs to be censored. But the only reason we are hearing about this unacceptable behaviour is because of the new technology.

If Jill McDevitt had received a telephone call and not an e-mail, she would not have been able to expose the unpleasant person and his ridiculous words. Frankly, it is unlikely many people would have believed her version of what was said. It would have been assumed that she was over-reacting. He would have received the benefit of the doubt.

This is how we wake up to the misogyny in our midst. It has always been there, but it is the new communications technology that is shining a light into this recess of our society.

What will Britain be like when the Royal Baby is King?

by Robert Sharp     July 23, 2013 at 8:01 am

So the #RoyalBaby has arrived. Congratulations to the Duchess of Cambridge and her husband.

Already tired of the preposterous media circus? Frustrated by the sycophancy? Here’s a constructive way of looking at the coverage:

You know how people like Michael Gove and David Starkey bang on about the importance of monarchs past? The traditionalists say that our Kings and Queens are useful milestones, markers or entry points to the wider social history.

Well, that can be true for future monarchs, too.

The baby boy born yesterday is now the perfect future milestone for discussions of the country we are making. He will likely begin his reign in the last decades of the twenty-first century.

That’s precisely the kind of planning horizon we need to sensibly discuss issues like climate change, technological innovation and population control.

Want to say something about the birth of this child? Set it in future historical context.

To be technically correct, the Queen did not approve Equal Marriage

by Robert Sharp     July 17, 2013 at 7:33 pm

The #EqualMarriage timeline on Twitter is full of people praising Queen Elizabeth II for approving the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. There is a strong sense of knowing irony steaming off those messages.

I feel that most of the people celebrating the new law think its rather ridiculous that the approval of the Monarch is still required.

What a relief, then, to learn that actually, Queen Elizabeth II did not formally approve the new law.

‘Royal Assent’ is actually a procedural step in the House of Lords. The monarch is invoked in the process, but she is not personally involved in the decision. From the Wikipedia page:

The granting of the Royal Assent … is simply La Reyne le veult (the Queen wills it)

This matters, because we should recognise that this pro-family reform of the law is the work of Parliament and Democracy. It is not a gift to us from the Establishment.

It is not that ‘La Reyne’ or ‘Le Roy’ wills it… but that the people of the United Kingdom have willed it. That’s important.

Benjamin Cohen, a long-term campaigner for the reform, has the right formulation:

The ignorance of the British public is a failure of the media

by Robert Sharp     July 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Over at the Spectator, Alex Massie analyses an Ipsos-Mori poll on some of the beliefs the British people hold about our country and the way the Government operates.

To pick just one statistic:

Then there’s this doozy: 29% of respondents think the government spends more on unemployment benefits – the Job Seekers’ Allowance – than on pensions. In fact, pensions cost 15 times as much (rightly so!).

Apparently the British public is similarly misinformed about the propoertion of Muslims in the country, the number of immigrants, the budget of the Department for International Development, the rate of teenaged pregancies, and the crime rate.

Massie shies away from calling the British people stupid, though the headline to his post ‘Abandon All Hope’ suggests this is what he thinks. And clearly this poll shows that we are, indeed, a highly ignorant bunch.

But I think it would be wrong for we the public to take the blame. To my mind, this poll shows that we are being failed by our media. Their primary purpose is surely to keep us informed about what is going on in our democracy, and clearly they are not doing that job effectively. That’s not something that Alex Massie cares to consider in his article.

Are the British public getting more savvy to extremism?

by Robert Sharp     June 1, 2013 at 9:25 am

Here’s a brilliant story from the City of York:

The EDL posted details about a demonstration they were going to host at our mosque on Sunday on their Facebook page. My first reaction was to let the police know, which I did, but when I really started thinking about it I remembered George Bernard Shaw saying, “If the world’s problems were brought to the Prophet Muhammad, he would solve them over a cup of tea..” I knew we had a sunny forecast for Sunday, and it’s very English to have tea and biscuits in the afternoon, so I thought it would be a kind gesture to invite the EDL in to tell us about their grievances.

First, this story represents an alternative vision of multiculturalism, the one put forward by the Dalai Lama when I asked him about the concept, a few years ago: Multiculturalism is about stressing similarities between different cultures.

Second, is it me, or have the British public become savvier at dealing with extremism?

I think people have ‘wised-up’ to the power of counter-intuitive gestures. As well as this Muslim take on ‘make tea not war’, I am thinking of things like the London #RiotCleanup that arose in response to the 2011 riots.

I also recall gestures of solidarity and defiance, like We Are Not Afraid and the Iranian/Israel Facebook Love-in.

I’ve made other notes on my own blog about counter-intutive, unexpected, turn-the-other-cheek style thinking. I think the savviness, such as it is, comes from the way in which ordinary people recognise the value not just in doing something unexpected and open, but in publicising that fact!

I note this not as a criticism, just an observation about the way in which people can spread their actions, and therefore their ideologies, through social media.

I do not know for sure, my I have an inkling that Mohamed El-Gomati’s idea to invite the EDL to tea was inspired as much by the recent precedent set by the sort of social media campaigns I mentioned above, as by anything said by the Prophet Mohammed.

I will try to log more examples of public savviness when they arise in future. Can you think of any more?


Re-reading this, I think it needs another paragraph. What is noteworthy about year gestures is that they do not come from politicians. Remember when Boris Johnson tried to piggy-back onto the #RiotCleanup goodwill. The examples I mentioned are also examples of leadership, progress, bold action that politicians do not seem capable of initiating. Is that because they lack imagination, or because we are so cynical that we would scoff at the same acts, if a politician tried to initiate them?

Why is the Alan Turing pardon so narrow?

by Robert Sharp     May 10, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Alan Turing

The Alan Turing Statutory Pardon Bill has been published on the Houses of Parliament website.

Turing was a mathematician and philosopher who cracked the Nazi Enigma code and invented electronic computing. He was also a homosexual, and was convicted of “Gross indecency between men” in 1952. As a result he lost his security clearance, was subjected to chemical castration, and committed suicide when he was only 42.

This statutory pardon seeks to atone for the Government’s appalling treatment of a national hero.

Nevertheless, the idea of such a narrow pardon worries me a little.

The implication seems to be that Turing gets a pardon because he achieved so much. But that should not be how the law and justice works.

What about all those under-achievers and ordinary men who were convicted under the same illiberal and unjust law? Why do they not get a pardon too?

Why is the government refusing asylum to translators for British soldiers?

by Robert Sharp     May 3, 2013 at 12:43 pm

A few years agao, I blogged about the campaign to save the Iraqi translators who had worked for British troops in the country.

Appallingly, the British Government refused to give them asylum, even though it was their work helping (perhaps, even keeping alive) British soldiers that had got them into trouble in the first place.

Via Aavaz, I learn that the British Government may now repeat this shameful episode in relation to translators working with British forces in Afghanistan. They want to give compensation, in lieu of asylum.

This really is not good enough. We have a duty to protect these people. Failure to do so would not only be a moral outrage – it would damage the reputation of British forces abroad and make it much harder to recruit local translators for future military operations.

Aavaz have a petition, which I have signed. Please do the same.

Why does the British Government drag its heels on these ethical no-brainers?

I worry that it is down to the confused debate about immigration in this country. Asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants and illegal immigrants are all very different types of migrant, but they are all spoken of as similarly illegitimate and unwelcome.

We cannot allow an immature debate at home to hobble our soldiers working abroad.

Does the press simply reflect the continuing sexism in our society?

by Robert Sharp     February 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Many of the people who attacked the author Hilary Mantel on Twitter yesterday made derogatory remarks about her appearance. This was unwittingly ironic, given that Mantel’s speech to the London Review of Books concerned the objectification of women, and our media’s obsession with looks.

If we believe in free speech, then insult becomes unavoidable. But that does not mean that objectification and misogyny should go unchallenged.

I felt it was particularly important to challenge people’s language in this case, because Mantel’s speech dealt directly with the problem of sexism in the media.

I spent some time yesterday evening collecting examples, which I made into a Storify.

My conclusions? The recent phone hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry has given us an opportunity to scrutinise the press. The conclusion is usually that the media is shallow and nasty.

However, I think these tweets, from ordinary members of the public, suggest that society can also be spiteful and sexist. Why blame the press, when they reflect the public?

Traditional marriage already paves the way to Polygamy

by Robert Sharp     February 7, 2013 at 11:27 am

Adam and Steve

It was great news that MPs voted for marriage equality on Tuesday. We should remember that the debate yesterday was only one of several stages in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.

There will be other votes on this issue, and the arguments for and against the reforms will persist for a little while yet.

The anti-family campaigners’ main argument is this: If we re-define marriage to include same-sex marriage, what is to stop a future parliament from re-defining the concept again, to allow polygamy, or inter-species marriage, &ct?

The usual rebuttal to this is that marriage has often been redefined – The Liberal Democrat campaigner Mark Pack’s recent post on this topic is a great example of this argument.

But there is another argument worth an airing. It is this: If we acquiesce to the traditional, religious conception of marriage, what is to stop future parliaments making further reversions in the future?

The religious books are pretty clear that the male has primacy in a marriage, and a religiously motivated politicians might seek to restore that inequality by redefining marriage. Likewise, the Bible has passages that warn against inter-faith marriage, such as 2 Corinthians 6:14:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

Stern stuff.

The Old Testament also endorses polygamy.

So giving credence to anything proposed by the religious or social conservatives risks a similar if different ‘slippery slope’ argument. “Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy”.

This is a reminder that it is in the very nature of our political system that laws may be changed, and that any change to any law means that it could be further reformed in the future. This is not a bad thing (although those who see their values falling out of fashion tend to see it as such).

Are there any immutable laws that are not open to revision by future parliaments? In times past, God’s Law performed this function. But this was a flawed system, not least because religious authorities seem happy to re-legislate the Word of God when it is convenient. Countries with a written constitution seek to encode some underlying laws that frame what legislators can and cannot do… but constitutions are open to amendment and repeal.

In Britain, the European Convention on Human Rights can trump domestic law. Its incarnation in British law, the Human Rights Act, has a certain meta-status, governing what other laws can or cannot say. But even these laws are open to repeal or withdrawal by law-makers.

There is no final arbiter that can prevent the slippery slope towards mad laws, dangerous and unethical laws, if a parliament wishes such things to be so. This is why the vigilance of the people is so important – to ensure that the law keeps pace with, but does not go beyond, our values. This seems to be happening in the case of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which reflects the new public consensus that marriage should be available to all.

Photo by Dave Schumaker on Flickr, Creative Commons Licence

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