Sunday 27 March 2011

A friend who works for the census...

... has told me that partially completing and returning it is the best way of being non-compliant, whilst avoiding prosecution. They have instructions to visit (possibly daily) 'soft refusers' - people who make excuses for not doing it, and to refer 'to be prosecuted' people who simply refuse, on ideological or political grounds, to fill it in at all. But my friend thinks that no action is planned for partially completed forms.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

On regulation

I’ve always liked the philosophy of shared space, which "removes the traditional segregation of motor vehicles, pedestrians and other road users. Conventional road priority management systems and devices such as kerbs, lines, signs and signals are replaced with an integrated, people-oriented understanding of public space, such that walking, cycling, shopping and driving cars become integrated activities."

This is the part in which I’m particularly interested:

Accident figures at one junction where traffic lights were removed have dropped from thirty-six in the four years prior to the introduction of the scheme to two in the two years following it.

And I can understand why, from the rare occasions when our local traffic lights stop working: everyone’s a lot slower and more careful because they’ve got to think about their own safety.

In the UK our lives are officially regulated in many ways now. We’ve even got traffic light warnings on some of our food! As well as the bewildering array of street signs and traffic management schemes, we’re constantly bombarded with state sponsored regulation in the fields of health and safety, childcare, fuel usage and the nature of our many interactions with bureaucracy.

Which brings me to this article by Swiss multi-millionaire and philosophical writer Alain de Botton:

In Defence of the Nanny State

- which conversely complains that: "Modern politics, on both left and right, is dominated by what we can call a libertarian ideology," and cites the root cause of this, for example, in the famous John Stuart Mill quote:

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant."

De Botton compares our modern secular society, cluttered as it is by advertisements "nudging" us to buy, with the more traditional and religious societies - pitied by the West for being compelled to live by stricter codes of conduct. He suggests:

A libertarian state truly worthy of the name would accept that our freedom is best guaranteed by an entirely neutral public space.

- although he fails to observe that the banning of advertisements itself would be a severely anti-libertarian stance, before going on to propose similar ‘remedies’, all of which would involve the imposition of more central decrees!

Like the proponents of ever more traffic regulation, he seems to work on the basis that people are inherently stupid, uncritical beings ("If we tend to think so often about eating crisps and buying cars, but relatively little about being nice or just, the fault is not merely our own. It is also that these two cardinal virtues are not generally in a position to become clients of Saatchi and Saatchi.") which, although I can appreciate the elegance of the argument, completely fails to take into account the phenomena of such a dramatic drop in the rate of accidents in ‘shared space’ towns.

The more we’re told what to do, the less we think for ourselves.

The author then goes on to make the case for increased paternalistic authority in our lives, on the apparent grounds that it’s good for us, and that we prefer it really.

In the modern world, there is so much that we would like to do but never end up doing, there are so many ways of behaving that we subscribe to in our hearts but ignore in our day-to-day lives. And perhaps most significantly, there are so few people around us who dare to exhort us to act well.

To which I would venture to say: "Speak for yourself," on both counts – with true appreciation of our collective remaining freedom to do so. And while I might share his concern that day-to-day modern life is perhaps too bustling, cut-throat and commercialised to engender the calm and measured state of mind that invariably leads to considerate behaviour between people, I’d prefer to look more deeply for its cause than "our original childhood need for constraint endur[ing] within us."

Mr de Botton’s father, from whom – according to his Wikipedia page – he inherited his millions, was a former president of Rothschilds in New York. His stepmother’s family founded Great Universal Stores, the corporation which now owns Argos and the Experian credit management company. None of which is his fault, of course, but I personally would cite some of those names as possible causes of any modern behavioural malaise – certainly for contributing to the proliferation of advertising! – before the "laziness" of ordinary people "about being nice".

I think the article’s last paragraph in particular warrants a full examination:

It is perhaps in the end a sign of immaturity to object too strenuously to sometimes being treated like a child.

I’ve read this through several times and it still doesn’t make any sense. If we complain about being treated like children, we’re being childish? Given the author’s background and position I can only wonder at his motives for suggesting this. Put it this way: I doubt that anyone will ever dare to treat him like a child, unless they’ve been specifically instructed by him to do so.

Why does the idea of a nanny state always have to be so terrifying?

Because some of us have been brought up according to limiting and constraining rules about obedience that were at one time necessary for the survival of the lower and middle classes, but thankfully – in most cases – no longer are? Having seen what paternalistic authority did to the lives of our parents and grandparents, having spied a chink of light in the cage door, our generation made a break for intellectual freedom. And – speaking for myself – we’re not giving it back!

The libertarian obsession with freedom ignores how much of our original childhood need for constraint endures within us,

There is absolutely no ‘original childhood need for constraint’ enduring in me! What kind of constraint are we talking about here? The physical, swaddling clothes, reins and playpens that are now completely absent from the lives of our own children, thank goodness? Or the more verbal “DO AS YOU ARE TOLD, FIRST TIME OF ASKING! DO NOT ASK ‘WHY’!” style of constraint that was deafeningly thundered at me on a regular basis and of which I am unspeakably glad to be rid now, having had no need of it at any time. I like to think that parents in those days knew no better than to unthinkingly pass on the parenting style that had been inflicted on themselves. In these enlightened days there can be no such excuses.

and therefore how much we stand to learn from certain paternalistic strategies.

That the freedom of the people can, perhaps, be terrifying for the ruling classes in some circumstances?

It is not much fun, nor ultimately even very freeing, to be left alone to do entirely as one pleases.

We reap what we sow. We take responsibility for our own decisions. We grow up. Being left alone to do entirely as one pleases is breathtakingly fun, phenomenally freeing and invariably beneficial to communities.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Unfortunate turn of phrase, Mr Narey?

"If we are absolutely clear that a child will be significantly better off if they are taken away from their parents, then we have to do that."

I know there are a small number of children from a range of social backgrounds who are tragically living in unbearable circumstances of cruelty and neglect with their birth parents, and of course I wouldn't argue with anyone who wanted to offer them an improvement to their lives, but I usually hear the term 'better off' in purely financial contexts.

In fact, a person could be forgiven for wondering whether outgoing Barnados chief Martin Narey has been in conversation recently with the Labour MP Graham Allen, who has recently published a report about early intervention into children's lives.

Mr Allen has the grace to say in his report: "It is not just about money," which is good, because I can think of some children of relatively affluent parents who might be emotionally "better off" in more caring, albeit economically poorer environments - if we're going to try to play God with people's 'life chances'.

It's not just about money. It shouldn't be even about money. Are these people - these men in high places - seeking to create a rich/poor apartheid in the official treatment of British families? If you're sufficiently wealthy, you get to be left alone, but if your income is below average then you can expect your child to have to undergo an early intervention programme? Your two year old child, who is essentially still your baby?

I know some people hold deeply anti-family beliefs. Through their own unfortunate childhood experiences, or some misguided Brave New World ideas about political utopia, they'd prefer any issue of the great unwashed to be surgically removed to a quiet, ordered place of unemotional clinical sterility, where it can be summarily cleansed of any potential lack of productivity and other irritating traits and I wouldn't like to put Messrs Narey or Allen into this bracket without further knowledge of them.

But I think, through their use of such unfortunate phrases, they might be in danger of straying uncomfortably close to it.

(More about the Allen report from Pete Darby here.)

Friday 15 October 2010

This seems somehow pertinent this week.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms - by Philip Pullman

Are such things done on Albion's shore?

The image of this nation that haunts me most powerfully is that of the sleeping giant Albion in William Blake's prophetic books. Sleep, profound and inveterate slumber: that is the condition of Britain today.

We do not know what is happening to us. In the world outside, great events take place, great figures move and act, great matters unfold, and this nation of Albion murmurs and stirs while malevolent voices whisper in the darkness - the voices of the new laws that are silently strangling the old freedoms the nation still dreams it enjoys.

We are so fast asleep that we don't know who we are any more. Are we English? Scottish? Welsh? British? More than one of them? One but not another? Are we a Christian nation - after all we have an Established Church - or are we something post-Christian? Are we a secular state? Are we a multifaith state? Are we anything we can all agree on and feel proud of?

The new laws whisper:

You don't know who you are

You're mistaken about yourself

We know better than you do what you consist of, what labels apply to you, which facts about you are important and which are worthless

We do not believe you can be trusted to know these things, so we shall know them for you

And if we take against you, we shall remove from your possession the only proof we shall allow to be recognised

The sleeping nation dreams it has the freedom to speak its mind. It fantasizes about making tyrants cringe with the bluff bold vigour of its ancient right to express its opinions in the street. This is what the new laws say about that:

Expressing an opinion is a dangerous activity

Whatever your opinions are, we don't want to hear them

So if you threaten us or our friends with your opinions we shall treat you like the rabble you are

And we do not want to hear you arguing about it

So hold your tongue and forget about protesting

What we want from you is acquiescence

The nation dreams it is a democratic state where the laws were made by freely elected representatives who were answerable to the people. It used to be such a nation once, it dreams, so it must be that nation still. It is a sweet dream.

You are not to be trusted with laws

So we shall put ourselves out of your reach

We shall put ourselves beyond your amendment or abolition

You do not need to argue about any changes we make, or to debate them, or to send your representatives to vote against them

You do not need to hold us to account

You think you will get what you want from an inquiry?

Who do you think you are?

What sort of fools do you think we are?

The nation's dreams are troubled, sometimes; dim rumours reach our sleeping ears, rumours that all is not well in the administration of justice; but an ancient spell murmurs through our somnolence, and we remember that the courts are bound to seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and we turn over and sleep soundly again.

And the new laws whisper:

We do not want to hear you talking about truth

Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours

We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on

We do not want to hear you talking about innocence

Innocent means guilty of things not yet done

We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence

You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt

We do not want to hear you talking about justice

Justice is whatever we want to do to you

And nothing else

Are we conscious of being watched, as we sleep? Are we aware of an ever-open eye at the corner of every street, of a watching presence in the very keyboards we type our messages on? The new laws don't mind if we are. They don't think we care about it.

We want to watch you day and night

We think you are abject enough to feel safe when we watch you

We can see you have lost all sense of what is proper to a free people

We can see you have abandoned modesty

Some of our friends have seen to that

They have arranged for you to find modesty contemptible

In a thousand ways they have led you to think that whoever does not want to be watched must have something shameful to hide

We want you to feel that solitude is frightening and unnatural

We want you to feel that being watched is the natural state of things

One of the pleasant fantasies that consoles us in our sleep is that we are a sovereign nation, and safe within our borders. This is what the new laws say about that:

We know who our friends are

And when our friends want to have words with one of you

We shall make it easy for them to take you away to a country where you will learn that you have more fingernails than you need

It will be no use bleating that you know of no offence you have committed under British law

It is for us to know what your offence is

Angering our friends is an offence

It is inconceivable to me that a waking nation in the full consciousness of its freedom would have allowed its government to pass such laws as the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), the Terrorism Act (2000), the Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001), the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Extension Act (2002), the Criminal Justice Act (2003), the Extradition Act (2003), the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003), the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004), the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), the Inquiries Act (2005), the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), not to mention a host of pending legislation such as the Identity Cards Bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.


And those laws say:

Sleep, you stinking cowards

Sweating as you dream of rights and freedoms

Freedom is too hard for you

We shall decide what freedom is

Sleep, you vermin

Sleep, you scum.

Philip Pullman will deliver a keynote speech at the Convention on Modern Liberty at the Institute of Education in London tomorrow

Thursday 8 January 2009

What it's like to live in Palestine this week

Sunday 4 January 2009

About Gaza

Qalballah and Shukr have both blogged eloquently about this, and I've just watched America's only intelligent politician talking about it and other things. Well worth a look.

I want to know what we can do, though? How do we stop these so-called 'pre-emptive' strikes, as Ron Paul describes them? If an aggressor is determined to be aggressive in the face of universal opposition, if governments are determined to bankrupt their own countries, if people with great power throughout the world persist in acting in this way, what can we do? Protest? It doesn't stop them. What will?

I've read quite a bit about what's happening in Gaza and am as outraged as everyone else, but this post by 'Babs' perhaps comes closest to my thoughts on it, such as they are.