Thatcher the Revolutionary

Posted on April 09, 2013

Thatcher the RevolutionaryThere has, by now, been more written about Margaret Thatcher than anyone can possibly read. Some of it is fantastic. Some of it is wicked. Much of it is more about the myths, good and bad, than it is about the actual political leader.

I don’t intend to add at great length to the reams of discussion already produced, but it seems to me that perhaps her longest-lasting impact has been neglected. Indeed, it is so long-lasting that it is yet to fully play out, even now.

Margaret Thatcher changed the Right from a reactionary movement into a revolutionary one. She embraced the crucial realisation that institutions and traditions are not inherently right, and embedded elites are almost always inherently wrong.

She was not afraid to tear up conventions and topple mouldering monoliths to pass opportunities and rights to the masses.

The traditional and aristocratic elites in her party hated her for it. So did the bosses who had grown fat on inefficient state industries, where failure was something to be managed, not eradicated. The millions who had suffered the result of symbiotic, comfortable relationships between the trade unions and the conservatives who contented themselves with a top deck cabin on Britain’s sinking ship, cheered her on.

It is easy now to imagine she was one of the establishment, by simple virtue of having been in Government for 11 years. But she wasn’t – she entered Parliament against bigotry over her class and gender, and she faced exactly the same bigotry (from all sides) once she got there. Small wonder that she liked plain-speaking grammar school boys more than aristocrats with land and estates.

A marvellous note survives from ICI’s personnel department, on the rejection of her application to be a research chemist in 1948. It reads: “This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.” In the view of ICI, she didn’t know her place, she dared to speak her mind and she was therefore a threat to their established order.

They were right – if wrong to reject rather than recruit her as a result. She came to bury the elite, not to praise or preserve it.

In her time, she had successes and failures, as all politicians do. It was certainly not the case that everything she did fitted the revolutionary ideal that I’ve just laid out – and nor did all of the revolutionary steps that she wished for come to pass.

But in having the realisation that conserving what came before is not enough, she changed the direction of centre right thinking. She was no libertarian, but she set the tone for the British Right to wake up to libertarianism.

The practical results of her time in power were positive overall. There were many ways they could have been improved, but it is undeniable that she revolutionised Britain. The way she changed the course of our thinking in the coming decades, though, will eventually come to outweigh even the way she changed our lives, our rights and our economy in the decade she made her own.

Shami and Liberty’s Leveson silence

Posted on March 27, 2013

Shami Chakrabarti has never been loathe to appear in the media. At every conceivable opportunity, up she pops to the extent people joke about her omnipresence.

That’s fair enough – after all, it is her job. But such constant coverage on so many topics also makes it easier to spot issues on which she and Liberty have maintained a peculiar silence.

Last year, it was striking that despite the range of threats to freedom and civil liberties that arose in the hosting of the London Olympics, Liberty had almost nothing to say on the subject. At the same time, Big Brother Watch dealt with a large number of different freedom issues directly related to the Games . There was no shortage of things to be concerned about.

Then, during Danny Boyle’s brilliant Opening Ceremony, Shami appeared – not to protest against the DNA database or the proliferation of CCTV, but to carry the Olympic flag as a “champion” of the Olympic movement. Suddenly the uncharacteristic quiet of the previous months made sense.

Now it’s happening again.

With Leveson’s proposals being mashed into law in a late night stitch-up, 318 years of British press freedom is coming to an end. Exemplary damages are hanging over the heads of bloggers and journalists alike, as a punitive means of forcing people into a supposedly voluntary system. Pens are being blunted for fear of state-backed punishments. And where are Liberty?

Well, they were in the media back in November – welcoming the Leveson plan, including the oppressive exemplary damages and explicitly supporting the idea of regulating the blogosphere.

Then Shami released a statement in December clarifying that, despite speculation, she was still supporting Leveson’s proposal for state-backed regulation of the media. While she opposed compulsory membership of a regulator, she restated her enthusiastic backing for exemplary damages to ensure anyone who did not voluntarily join would be at risk of ruin.

Since then, nothing. Literal silence from the group whose website claims they believe that:

Human rights are indivisible. You cannot pick and choose which rights you want to honour. Many rights depend on each other to be meaningful – so, for example, the right to fair trial would be meaningless without the prohibition on discrimination, and the right to free speech must go hand in hand with the right to assemble peacefully.

They’ve talked about secret courts. They’ve tweeted to raise funds. But they don’t appear to have given a damn about the prospect of three centuries of a free press going down the drain.

Why could that be?

To find an answer, we need to look back to 20th July 2011, when Liberty reported that:

Today it was announced that the director of human rights group Liberty will be one of the panel members of the judicial inquiry into phone hacking.

Oh, right.

What happened to human rights being sacred and indivisible? What happened to Liberty’s self-declared status as a fearless group speaking out against any attack on freedom? For that matter, what happened to the meaning of the word Liberty?

It seems Liberty has become a brand, not a concept to fight for. The indivisible has become the malleable – and all those principles have been sold for a scrap of establishment prestige.

If you’re interested in real civil liberties and real freedom, I’d suggest you lend your support to Big Brother Watch and The Freedom Association (on whose Council I am proud to sit). They, at least, won’t sell their souls – or our freedoms – for a moment in the spotlight, or a seat on a prestigious panel.

Has Shami Chakrabarti actually read George Orwell?

Posted on January 29, 2013

“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing”, wrote George Orwell in his famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘.

Imagine his disappointment at learning that this statement still holds true 67 years later. He would have been frustrated to find that one of the worst examples of bad political writing was an article in praise of his own essay on the subject.

The offending piece appeared in the Guardian last Thursday, written by Shami Chakrabarti. It was so bad, that it leads me to suspect that she hasn’t actually read ‘Politics and the English Language’ – or that she hasn’t read it all the way through.

Had she done so, at the end of the essay she would have found Orwell’s six rules for writing good English:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They are an excellent guide, to which I try to stick – though not always successfully, as I’m sure at least one reader will point out in the comments.

Shami, however, utterly disregards them in her Guardian article. Let’s run through them one by one:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

“While [Orwell] illustrated this powerful theory with examples of ugly, unclear and ultimately misleading prose, today the Orwell prize, established in his name, positively celebrates work that speaks truth to power and shines a light on the darkest distortions of fact and argument.”

Oh dear. “Speaks truth to power” is perhaps the most tired phrase still loping around Westminster, like a much-hunted fox that refuses to die. As for “shines a light on the darkest [insert negative concept]”, to describe that as something we are “used to seeing in print” would be the understatement of the year. To combine the two in a sentence which claims the Orwell prize as the heir to his principles is embarrassing.

Nor are those the only breaches of Orwell’s first rule. Others include “spins in his grave”, “as old as the hills” and even an apparently straight-faced deployment of “Orwellian”, only two paragraphs after she described is as an “over-used adjective”.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

I am going to give you one quote: “securocrats”. The verbal equivalent of swallowing a Full English Breakfast made out of Lego.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

“positively celebrates”

Can you celebrate something negatively?

“creeping cancer”

A breach of rule (i), compounded by the author’s inexplicable decision to make cancer more creepy.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Hooray, a rule which survives unscathed!

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

“Is that proportionate justification for building legal and physical architecture requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?”

That sentence would work as well – or even better – without the words “building legal and physical architecture”. After all, what is “legal architecture” other than “laws”, and what is “physical architecture” other than “architecture”?

“Is that proportionate justification for requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?” is still far from the world’s prettiest sentence, but it’s more accessible and direct than the jargon-bloated original.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Whether the article would descend into barbarism without the quotes I’ve selected is for others to judge.

What is certain is that the man the article praises would have been infuriated by the English used to compose it. If Shami intended to write a tribute to him, shouldn’t she have read his work and understood what he believed in?

A message to those who think insults should be illegal

Posted on January 15, 2013

One of the fundamental tenets of a free society is free speech – the freedom to criticise, to debate, to hold to account and to shock or insult. The world is full of people who will say “I believe in free speech – but it doesn’t mean the right to insult people or their beliefs.”

Well, I’m sorry if you find this offensive, but I’m about to offend that belief. It’s illogical nonsense. Free speech is not free speech if you cannot use it freely – and part of its function is to allow people to express their beliefs, including that the beliefs or sensitivities of someone else are incorrect, unpleasant or just plain idiotic.

The fallacy of “I believe in free speech, but not the freedom to offend” is alarmingly widespread, and extremely dangerous. Sometimes  it is spouted by the naive, the mistaken or the simply stupid – but often it is a faux-logic cover for those who simply do not believe in freedom at all.

Claiming to believe in free speech but not in the freedom to offend is like saying you believe in the freedom to breathe, but not the freedom to absorb oxygen into a bloodstream, or that everyone has a right to use pens but ink should be banned. It means you don’t believe in free speech at all. It is the verbal equivalent of sleight of hand – and not a very good one, drawing a distinction where no distinction exists.

If you are guilty of using it, please stop doing so. In the magic trick stakes, it’s more like the kind you get free in a cracker and try to perform drunk on Christmas afternoon than a Derren Brown illusion. No one thinks you actually have magic powers, they think you’re a tiresome relation who can’t hold his drink. When you finally doze off in front of one of the weaker Bond films, they’ll raise a silent cheer and either draw on your face or place your hand into a cup of warm water. Or both.

Until now, the law backed up these amateur Paul Daniels tribute acts. Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 made it a criminal offence to say anything insulting, where that insult is defined subjectively by the recipient of the comment or anyone witnessing or hearing tell of it.

I’m delighted to read that the Home Secretary has now accepted a Lords amendment to delete the provision which outlaws insults. I hope you will join me in congratulating the Reform Section 5 campaign – and in keeping a watchful eye for any other incursions into free speech.

A table, a chair – and liberty in the space between

Posted on December 18, 2012

Whether you like the monarchy or not, you’ve got to agree that the Queen knows her job inside out. It’s hard to think of anyone who has a more natural, ingrained understanding of her role and the protocol that goes with it. Just witness her glance of disappointment when Barack Obama bungled things and talked over the national anthem last year.

So it’s fair to say she does not do things by accident when enacting her constitutional role.

There was a great example of this at her visit to this morning’s Cabinet meeting. As the camera panned down the table, two things were noticeable.

First, that she was sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair. This is symbolic as well as polite – a reminder that the PM exercises many of his powers under Royal Prerogative, on the Queen’s behalf. She was visiting, so he gave up the chair to the person whose powers he exercises.

The second was that the Queen was sitting ever so slightly back from the table. Every minister had his or her chair pulled in to do business – she, though, was a few inches further back.

It is the tiniest thing, but far from irrelevant. It wasn’t chosen to enable a quicker getaway, or for leg-stretching room, but because it was part of her role in the room. In our constitutional monarchy, which has proved such a stable way of preserving democratic liberty against the tyranny of crown or dictatorship since 1688, the Queen was there to watch others exercise the powers of Government, not to govern herself.

She sat by the Cabinet table, not at it. And in those few inches of space lay 324 years of constitutional history – liberty preserved by the placing of a chair.

You won’t find an elected president in the world who is as classy as that.

Did Magna Carta die in vain?

Posted on September 27, 2012

Today’s news of David Cameron’s trouble remembering what Magna Carta means on theLetterman Show inevitably recalls Tony Hancock’s classic “Twelve Angry Men” episode of Hancock’s Half Hour:

With the immortal words:

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?

Hancock reduced the audience to gales of laughter, and secured yet another entry in the annals of comedy history.

And yet, there’s also something rather sad about that clip, echoing down from 1959. If a prime time comedy show made that gag today, how many people in the audience would laugh and how many would be left scratching their heads over what it meant?

If you go to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed – laying the foundation stone of English freedom – you will find a memorial. Its inscription reads

“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law”

But it was not erected by the British public, or by our Parliamentarians, or our legal institutions. It was put there by the American Bar Association who, it seems, value Magna Carta more than we do.

Perhaps Hancock was right – Magna Carta means nothing to us. She died in vain.

Why Andrew Mitchell should have been arrested

Posted on September 26, 2012

Arresting people for swearing is ridiculous. And yet, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, it regularly happens.

Section 5 is a badly written, catch-all law which – as one former officer put it to me recently – “lets us take people off the streets if they haven’t committed a specific offence but we don’t really want them there”.

The precise wording outlaws anyone who:

(a)     uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b)     displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

Given the total lack of any definition of what constitutes “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour”, and the overzealous nature of some (though far from all) bobbies on the beat, it is hardly surprising that the clause has been abused over the years. It has been applied to stop people making perfectly valid criticisms of Scientology, protesting against the murder and oppression of gay people in the Middle East, and saying religions are “fairy tales”, among many others.

Given that it is on the statute book, and that it is regularly used to arrest ordinary members of the public for far less serious behaviour than that displayed at Downing Street last week, Section 5 should surely have been used to arrest Andrew Mitchell, the Chief Whip.

Instead, he was allowed to swear repeatedly at a police officer, despite the police log’s report that bystanders looked “visibly shocked” – which seems to my lay perspective to qualify as using “insulting words…within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress”.

How many plebeians would be allowed to get away with that with only a verbal warning, rather than a trip to the cells?

Giving greater privileges and more freedom under the law to members of the Government than is given to the people at large prevents Westminster from understanding how bad the criminal law of this country has become. Leading the Chief Whip away in cuffs would have been an absurd scene when his sacking or resignation should be the sensible outcome, but it would have woken our representatives up to the excessive powers of Section 5.

Until that happens, what hope is there that they will realise the urgent need to reform the Public Order Act?

The banning of the burqa would be even more un-British than the wearing of it

Posted on April 11, 2011

On the day that France bans the burqa – thus becoming a state so draconian as to dictate what people can and cannot wear – it seems appropriate to repost one my earliest pieces on this site, weighing up whether a ban in Britain would be right.

It’s a tricky topic – often leading people who oppose a ban to falsely pretend they are entirely comfortable with an institution which in truth few people really are comfortable with. Britain’s position is all the more important now that proponents of the French ban are pointing across the Channel to warn that without it France could become like the UK.

So here’s the post. Let me know your thoughts.

Young and libertarian? Sign up for the Freedom Forum

Posted on March 21, 2011

In another encouraging sign of the British libertarian movement pulling together, the weekend of 1st – 3rd April will see the first ever Freedom Forum being held in Birmingham, organised by The Freedom Association, the Liberty League and the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The aim of the forum is to train libertarian students and young professionals in the ideas of freedom and the skills of political campaigning. There’ll be speakers from a host of organisations giving talks and leading workshops on a whole range of topics – including me, leading several workshops on how to promote our ideas and aims through the media.

It should be a brilliant event (with, I’m assured, as much socialising as learning) which is a great opportunity to learn new skills and make new contacts with the new generation of pro-freedom activists. Even better, it only costs £20 for the whole weekend – food, accommodation, drink and books and videos to take away with you.

Full details of the event are here, and you can register to attend here. Hopefully I’ll see you there.

Libertarians and the Apocalypse

Posted on January 10, 2011

I’ve always loved apocalypse fiction, ever since I was a kid. Nuclear war, plague, natural disaster, zombies, the medium doesn’t matter – Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend, Alas Babylon!, A Canticle for Leibowitz, 28 Days Later, The Road, Survivors, The Death of Grass, The Walking Dead, I’ve enjoyed them all. (Before anyone gets scared, I should probably add that I do read and watch other things as well…)

I’ve come across plenty of other fans of end-of-the-world fiction over the years, from all walks of life and points of view (Tom Harris MP, for example). However, a pattern has definitely established itself bit by bit – libertarians are more likely to enjoy apocalypse fiction than any other political group I’ve come across.

Why should this be the case?

There’s a lazy answer, which we should deal with straight away. The usual political smear-merchants would trot out that it’s because libertarians hate human beings and wish secretly that everyone was dead. Obviously this is nonsense – for a philosophy founded on admiring people enough to trust them to live their own lives, it would be absurd to want everyone killed.

In fact, far from being a macabre interest in the apocalypse – stories about everyone dying – I think this is actually an interest in post-apocalypse fiction – stories about how people survive without the State.

There’s obviously the basic appeal of a world where there’s no-one bossing you around, telling you off for smoking or drinking or trying to gather your personal data. That’s something any libertarian merrily daydreams about. But most intriguing and fascinating of all is speculating about human innovation and interaction without an overriding authority either doing it all for you or forcing you to do as it wishes.

In our world as it is today, there are myriad restraints on living by a libertarian code. Indeed, most activity by libertarian campaigners is taken up opposing proposals that would further impinge on our individual freedom, so it seems that the general shift is even further away from our ideal position.

We are so far from a libertarian world that the best way to explore how our ideas might work in practice is through what scientists and philosophers would call a thought-experiment – testing out political ideas in a theoretical, simplified world.

For example, a physicist wanting to test a theory of how radiation operates under particular circumstances might well imagine a thought-experiment world where there was no background radiation, no sun and no stars to interfere. Similarly, someone wanting to explore how people might live in a libertarian way inevitably finds it interesting to imagine life in a world without authority, state, nosey neighbours or hectoring puritans – a thought-experiment provided most commonly in the world of apocalypse fiction.