Wednesday, November 03, 2010

"and yet you say this is a righteous government"

posted by k

Back in April and early May, voters took their responsibility seriously. Viewing figures were high when the party leaders debated plans and policies. The young people I knew, voting in a General Election for the first time, were particularly conscientious, reading on-line manifestos, attending meetings – even turning out applaud or argue with party leaders.

Some council officials hadn't expected the rush of voters. Polling stations ran out of ballot papers, made voters queue for hours and even turned them away at the end of their long wait. There were complaints, enquiries. Some polling stations faced a near riot. People wanted to be part of a democracy and were affronted when they lost their opportunity to affect the future of their country.

It didn't turn out like that. The politicians who found themselves in power quickly changed their views. The election result suggested divided opinions and fierce, unresolved debates. People really believed that a democracy gave them responsibility to think through political questions. On most days of the election campaign I found myself discussing political questions, sometimes with mere acquaintances or strangers encountered on a train. Most expressed frustration that no politician fully represented their views but they listened, read and chose the agenda that seemed nearest to what they wanted.

All we had to go on were the stated words and policies of the candidates. When politicians said they and their parties were opposed to torture, against arms sales, in favour of civil liberties or opposed to a surveillance society, we had to believe them. When candidates and their party leader signed guarantees to vote against any rise in students' tuition fees – and campaigned among students on the basis of that policy – they demanded our trust. They didn't give vague hints but firm undertakings.

In the early days of the Coalition, there were hints that promises would be ditched and that the views of the electorate counted for little. If the electorate as a whole had voted for uncertainty, which implies further debate, the result could be ignored. We were to be given stability and firm government. “Politicians know best,” was the underlying message.

Some buzz-words from the campaign persisted. There were frequent references to fairness, freedom and the big society. Perhaps there were grounds to wait and hope for the best. Quite a few tories attacked state repression under the last government. It seemed reasonable to hope they would take their own statements seriously. While the cabinet seemed to include too many public-school and Oxbridge-educated millionaires, surely they would notice the limits of their own narrow experience of life, at least to the extent of seeking advice from other party members?

Gradually hope faded. Ending detention of child asylum-seekers wasn't immediate and didn't mean exactly what it said. Guidelines were changed so that quite young teenagers, who arrived in Britain alone, could be deported to war zones. Deportations - by private companies working for profit - continued to be brutal. One man died - the investigation continues. Passengers who objected to what they saw as brutality were bundled off their flight and held under anti-terror legislation.

There's worse. Craig Murray joined the Liberal Democrats and campaigned for them because they opposed evidence from torture. His analysis of the recent speech by MI6 head John Sawers suggests that Liberal Democrat ministers now accept "evidence" gained from torture overseas, implicitly encouraging the continuation of torture.

ID cards were scrapped but a new form of surveillance was encouraged. Every e-mail, web-search or telephone call made by a British resident is to be logged for government scrutiny. The excuse is the familiar one: the everlasting War on Terror. The census will probably be ended but instead private companies will be paid to gather data. The companies used already carry out investigations on our credit-worthiness. I'm not happy that the government should keep a file on me whose details combine my family circumstances and religious practices with details of my bank accounts and recent purchases.

Then there are the cuts. Party leaders knew - or should have known - they were coming. All three candidates for chancellor agreed the cuts would be severe - worse than anything we had ever known in the post-war period. Yet the candidates continued to make promises. Education Maintenance Allowances for 16-18 year-olds would be preserved. All Liberal Democrat MPs would vote against any increase in tuition fees. Whenever a pre-election promise was questioned, the party representatives assured us they had all been costed out.

Now they insist it's all different. Apparently what you say to win an election is different from the actions you take when the election is - more or less - won. We weren't supposed to vote for the manifestos or the promises. We were simply supposed to select the most personable liar.

You can still read the manifestos of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. Traces of the parties' campaign promises survive on-line. They ring hollow now.

So do Coalition protests that they didn't know how dire the economic situation was. Four days before the election I wrote about the ways in which politicians from all parties were ducking the question of the economy in favour of offering minor bribes to voters.

There could have been a real debate. The voters were interested, eager to be involved. But the election was based on false premises and a series of policies and promises that were junked with little hesitation. What was the election worth? What was it about?

I suppose the election was about power - the government's power over us.

If our system of "democracy" is based on guesswork and false promises, how can we call it "democracy"? The people are supposed to have power - that's what the word "democracy" means. Without knowledge and honesty, we can't make the serious judgements required of us. But if we don't live in a democracy, what system are we in? I wonder how far I'm bound by the country's laws when they're passed by MPs elected on a platform of pretence.

Most of all I feel conned. I thought that words like "pledge" or "guarantee" stood for something. They didn't. Silly, silly me.

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Monday, May 03, 2010

"who does the wolf love?"

posted by k

In my brief and ineffectual period of political involvement – back in the 1970s - I learnt some of the rules about elections. I saw how counts were conducted and scrutinised, I discovered that there were limits on party spending in any constituency – and that they started the moment a candidate stopped being called the “prospective party candidate” after his official adoption for the seat, and I learnt the rules on treating.

“Treating” is regarded in electoral law as a form of bribing the electorate. I learnt that the rules were so strict that if I was working in a committee room on election day, I'd have to pay for any coffee and biscuits I consumed, even though the committee room was in the house of a personal friend. If I didn't pay for my mid-morning snack, that could either be regarded as a bribe to vote for the candidate I supported or as payment for my services, in which case it could topple the allowed expenses for the constituency over the permitted maximum.

Things seem to have changed, according to Craig Murray's account of Jack Straw's campaign in Blackburn. Jack Straw, the Secretary of State for Justice, seems happy to invite 700 people for free, sit-down dinners. It sounds like the sort of practice that led to laws against treating. He's been getting away with it for years so, unless the rules have changed, I suppose he's found some way round the law. I wonder what it is.

All politicians offer bribes to voters. The party manifestos are full of them. There are promises to help you if you're poor, rich, old, young, married, officially partnered. There are even bribes for the dead – the Conservative Party's rhetoric talks of a “death tax,” as though people would rather pay more in taxes when still alive. (Nobody seems to have noticed the way the conservatives' proposed marriage allowance deprives the widows and abandoned, whose taxes will rise by £150 a year, as if to punish them for the loss of a partner.)

There's something disturbing about this focus on bribing the electorate. Media stories repeatedly tell voters that it's fine – even praiseworthy – to vote entirely out of self-interest. Self-interest is bound to play a part. I know the world most vividly from my own experience and that is bound to influence my decisions. But there's more to it than that. As citizens in a democracy, we should also be asked to consider the good of the whole. I want to vote for more than “bread and circuses.”

There's nothing indecent in caring for the well-being of others – even people I haven't met. Most people are more generous and unselfish than they realise. If I look around, I see daily acts of kindness and courtesy – cruelty and selfishness are still unusual enough to be shocking. People who can barely afford it give money to charitable appeals. Marathon runners ask for sponsorship – often to help people they don't know – and their friends are happy to sponsor them. People who express hatred or mistrust for a minority group (Muslims, asylum seekers, gay people) rarely live out that hatred in their daily lives but make ever more exceptions for the likeable individuals they encounter.

Away from elections, citizens also care about big political questions and international responsibility. At the lowest estimate, 1 in 50 members of the entire British population made their way to one of the big anti-war demonstrations on 15th February, 2003. They were supported by millions more. This wasn't a selfish impulse but a real political concern which the government chose to attack, misrepresent and finally ignore. Huge numbers of people are concerned about poverty overseas and pollution of the environment. Beside the concerns of the people, the scope of the leaders' debates and media reporting seems rather narrow, as though voters are being encouraged to vote only from self-interest.

Even if we were all to vote from self-interest, we don't have the information we need. The three candidates for chancellor agreed in their debate that cuts would be brutal – harsher than under Thatcher – but none of the leaders is prepared to turn to the voters and explain precisely what they plan for us. The Financial Times on 26th April laid out the kind of cuts we might expect; according to their simulator, using government figures, cuts of £30 – 40 billion, which all parties agree we need, would require the following cuts or their equivalent:

" a 5 per cent cut in public sector pay; freezing benefits for a year; means-testing child benefit; abolishing winter fuel payments and free television licences; reducing prison numbers by a quarter; axing the two planned aircraft carriers; withdrawing free bus passes for pensioners; delaying Crossrail for three years; halving roads maintenance; stopping school building; halving the spending on teaching assistants and NHS dentistry; and cutting funding to Scotland and Wales by 10 per cent."

None of the parties is talking about cuts on this scale – and no-one seems to be addressing the knock-on effect such cuts would have. If large groups of people have less money to spend, a large number of businesses will collapse – and that will lead to more unemployment and, presumably, higher spending on benefits. It's a nasty cycle and no-one is talking about how we shall ever get out of it – or whether we need to adjust our way of life.

This election should have been an opportunity to discuss questions of equality and the distribution of wealth. These are vital questions in a democracy. Wealth buys influence – and that may be the strongest political argument for its more equal distribution. There are also important ways in which the poor are not free.

During this election, the media have encouraged us to see the political parties as purveyors of treats and promises. What they offer sounds more alluring than a cup of instant coffee and a biscuit – or even a plate of curry. But the rewards we're offered may prove insubstantial – and they're a pretty poor substitute for a grown-up and thoughtful political debate.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

"He loved Big Brother now."

posted by k

I'm waiting for the knock on the door.

My largely law-abiding life won't save me. They've invented new laws and then, just in case they've missed something, there are ways of personalising the law – devising special laws to get just one person. And I'm not talking about Brian Haw, who got the honour of a special clause in an act of parliament (which turned out not to work in his case after all). I'm talking about laws which might get me – or you. It wasn't always quite so bad.

Of course, there have been plenty of laws to trap the unwitting or foolish or honest. Don't tell a soldier you think he or she should have a change of career. That breaks the Incitement to Disaffection Act (1934). (I've broken that one a couple of times. I'd rather they arrested me for that because I did it deliberately - I think it's wrong to deprive anyone of freedom of thought and conscience.) And there are bad laws which have been repealed. Section 28, which scared teachers out of saying that Oscar Wilde was gay or that most of Shakespeare's sonnets were written to a fair young man, is no longer on the statute books. I'm pleased about that.
But there are all those new, apparently well-meaning laws which seem to be used in unpredicted ways.

Take the law on stalking. One individual stalking another is a nasty, threatening matter. I've known young women in particular – though it's not only young women who are affected – really frightened by phone-calls in the middle of the night, threatening letters, displays of covertly-taken photographs. When victims complain and nothing is done, I'm angry. When victims, who may have been stalked for years, are beaten up and even killed, I start asking, “Why didn't they listen to her? Why don't they do something?”
So the government responded. A minister could have pointed out that there were already laws against harassment or proposed a slight adjustment to existing laws. Instead we were offered a brand-new, shiny law which would protect the vulnerable from harm – and even from mild distress.

But it wasn't just used against stalkers. It was one of those all-purpose, catch-all laws which could be used against anybody who talked to or wrote to someone more than once. If I encounter an arms manufacturer on the train – it could happen; making weapons is big business in Britain – and find out about his profession, I might express myself strongly, even enter into an argument with him. And if I see him the next day, I might continue that argument – and he might be annoyed. Under the law, that would count as stalking and I might find myself in jail. If I were handing out leaflets and offered one to the same person twice, that might be considered a crime. It seems to me that if a friend and I had a row in a pub and one of us phoned the other to continue the row, that might be considered stalking.

The law is being framed to prevent awkward behaviour and mild distress – and the government seems quite pleased that it sweeps up political protesters and non-violent dissidents as well.
Bu you don't have to break the law to get an ASBO. Anti-social behaviour legislation has been so widely framed that it's possible to construct a special law to limit the freedom of speech, action and movement of one individual who hasn't broken any law. That idea was controversial when it came in but now everyone's used to the idea that if your neighbour annoys you enough, you might be able to stop the annoyance with an ASBO. Sometimes ASBOs are used instead of charging someone with a more conventional crime. ASBOs allow magistrates to impose sentences that they make up: people can be banned from places and forbidden to act in a way that is perfectly legal for anybody else.

ASBOs lack the legal safeguards of conventional criminal laws and injunctions which protect individuals. If you break an ASBO – a law constructed just for you – you can land in jail. It's another convenient tool for dealing with protesters and dissidents.

Freedom of speech is being eroded too. I'm not an absolutist about freedom of speech. I'm not in favour of inciting hatred against anyone. Incitement to violence is dangerous. (I sometimes wonder why politicians are never charged with either offence.) There are many individuals and groups who suffer because of what is said about them – that's important for everyone to remember. Politicians and the people have a responsibility to counter a climate of hate. Silence won't achieve that. Nor will the competitive xenophobia of politicians.

Of course I'm sometimes hurt and offended by people's attitudes and what they say. I'm human. But my first action isn't to ring the police. I can see why an airport chaplain was offended by anti-religious cartoons, clipped from Private Eye, left in the airport chaplaincy – they were probably left there to offend. Leaving them there might have been a silly action but it surely doesn't deserve a criminal record. The church wasn't damaged. God wasn't damaged. It seems particularly ludicrous in a nominally Christian country where – archaically – bishops vote as unelected members of the second chamber of parliament and the Archbishop of Canterbury plays a key role in the coronation of the monarch. And – oh -dear! - I've made tactless and ill-judged jokes at times. Will the police come round to get me?

With any luck, the police won't kill me, though since the death of Juan Charles Menenez and the case of David Mery I've felt a little less confident on the tube. I usually find the police polite, even though I was caught in a kettle once and found my experience rather different from the police's official account.

But what would happen if the police came round and arrested me? According to the the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the police keep 25% of the goods and money they confiscate and the Crown Prosecution Service keeps a further 25%. The law was meant – so were told – to deal with major criminals and drug traffickers using threats and violence – and the standard of proof of how the money was obtained was changed, so that the “criminal” had to prove a legal right to the money. It sounds great when dealing with international criminals. It's more troubling when the police seize the jewellery – and even the life savings – of prostitutes working together for their own protection. Prostitutes are not .likely to go to court to recover their money, as the law requires. So cash-strapped police forces find that pursuing a particular crime is a nice little earner for the force, so long as the police forget that they are now living on immoral earnings – the usual definition of a pimp.

I could go one. I could go on. There are so many liberties trickling away. I've committed so many offences that might be arrestable. I even took a photo of the House of Commons – with a policeman outside. Governments don't usual restore the liberties they have taken – unless the people insist. And all around me are people who have forgotten the liberties they lost and adjusted oppressive, intrusive laws. I'm adjusting too. This time next year, I may have forgotten what liberty is. What liberties have I forgotten already?

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Think you there was, or might be, such a man?"

posted by k

When I began this blog, I was inspired by two men.

Gerard Mulholland lived in a Paris suburb.
For many years heart problems and, more recently diabetes, affected his capacity to work and travel. This didn't end his concern with the state of the world and with human beings. From his computer he engaged in political debate – on public message boards and through email correspondence with his friends. He was always concerned with questions of liberty and the related question of equality. In his discussions on public forums his unusual sense of democracy shone – he was as happy at a lively debate on the Sun message boards as in forums run by the BBC, the Guardian or Republic. His concern was dialogue and, while he would put his own view as forcefully as he could, he would listen to what other people said and question his own assumptions. Despite his occasional assertions of pessimism at the state of the world and human beings – he never stopped being shocked by the cruelty people could inflict on one another – he also wanted to do his best for the world and his fellow humans.

David Rose was a poet who worked in Colne in Lancashire. He had practical skills, an understanding of engineering and was also a successful barman. Only those who have never worked behind a bar think that's an easy job – the best bar staff care not only about the quality of beer they serve but also about their customers and colleagues. David cared about serving good beer but he cared for people even more. This brought him into all kinds of local projects, including work on the Millennium Green, an open space in Colne. Like Gerard, he saw people – including those who were disregarded - as equals and was good at finding the skills they could bring to share in local projects. I imagine that some of these qualities had been honed when he was involved in the free festivals movement. He was used to seeing past the damage that people had suffered to find their real value. His concerns for liberty and humanity led him to a critical analysis of the way in which the voluntary – or third – sector was being hijacked by the state. Most recently, his worries about state surveillance and intrusion led him to advance detailed arguments about the ways in which government policy was finding people guilty not just of thought-crime but of pre-crime – he noted the ways in which government agencies were asked to identify potential criminals at nurseries and earlier – even among babies before birth. While Gerard's contribution to Areopagitica was through the comments he made, David posted thoughtfully to the blog.

Both Gerard and David had rejected careers that would have aligned them with the establishment. Gerard turned down the offer of pupillage as a barrister in a well-known set of chambers to become a tour guide. In the 1970s this enabled him to take part in Liberal politics, always on the radical wing of the party. David, whose degree was in engineering, worked initially in big industrial companies - what today are called multi-nationals - but he left this career to live outside a system with which he felt little sympathy. Neither was rich – they lived with the everyday worries about family and bills that most people experience. Neither lived a perfect life – nor claimed to do so. Both acted at times in ways they later regretted, would be angry on occasion – and then would apologise. They were critical of themselves and their actions but offered sympathy and understanding to the mistakes and flaws of friends.

If Gerard and David were standing in the current general election, the media would probably spend a lot of time raking through their lives and assuring the electorate that they were too flawed to represent us in parliament. We're encouraged to support candidates with perfect pasts, photogenic family lives, who never lose their temper or question the received platitudes of political life (although these change from day to day). In the past thirty years, photogenic men and women with perfect pasts have dismantled a caring society, created and encouraged chasms of mistrust and intolerance between groups and individuals, built a surveillance state, permitted and encouraged torture, condoned illegality, led the country into wars and bombed cities into such pain and chaos that only hatred remains - but our clean-living, respectable leaders have wrapped up their actions in neat, media-friendly soundbites.

Gerard and David were prepared to ask difficult questions and reach uncomfortable conclusions. They cared that human beings had the opportunity to live free and fulfilling lives and take part in genuinely thoughtful political debates. I wish I had the chance to vote for them.

Gerard died in July last year. His health had been deteriorating for a long time but he seemed immortal. The last text message I received from him, which must have been sent about an hour before he died, rejoiced that the right had “done their duty” and voted against Marine Le Pen in the Pas de Calais mayoral election.

David died at the end of December. He was on his way back from a holiday on Skye with his wife and a friend. I've seen some of his photos from that holiday. Again, my last communications from him were text messages. Before his holiday he delighted in the unlikely sight of of seventeen mountain-biking santas arriving at the pub where he worked. On Skye he observed the sea frozen at the loch-heads.

I feel uneasy writing an obituary for Gerard and David even now. They are mourned by family and friends who knew them better than I did. Much of my friendship with them was maintained and developed through emails and telephone calls. It wasn't just a correspondence about politics. There were poems, music, ideas, history and lots of jokes. I miss them a lot.

I wondered for a long while if I could continue this blog without them – it was born out of debate and shouldn't be a monologue. I think I shall continue but Areopagitica is bound to change without their contribution.

When I consider how to vote in the general election - and I'm still thinking about it - I recall the discussions I had with Gerard and David. I think about the principles of freedom and equality – and how these need to be rooted in a care for all human beings. I'll try to blog more about this later.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

posted by k

The Liberal Democrats are conferring this weekend. A long time ago I used to attend Liberal Assemblies - they weren't conferences then but altogether unwieldier bodies where debates were taken seriously as the means of changing party policy and, through that, the country and the world.

I left the Liberals on a point of policy in the early 1980s. Since then, the Liberals have merged with the Social Democrats although there are still liberals within the new party. There seem to be other changes too. There's concern with security. When I joined, in my late teens, Assemblies were a place where I might find myself sitting next to a Member of Parliament, a peer or - even in those days - a celebrity supporter. It was remarkably easy to take part in eager discussions of policy though hard to get called to speak - there were so many keen to debate.

If I couldn't get called to speak at the main debates, I had a chance to express my views at a range of smaller fringe meetings. And I'd wander round the stalls run by a range of organisations and have conversations with the stall-holders. I remember some of the organisations who ran stalls and fringe meetings. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality was there. So were the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Child Poverty Action Group. I remember these in particular because they challenged some of my assumptions and told me facts I hadn't previously known. The Liberal Assembly was a place where people actually changed their minds.

These days there are still stalls and fringe meetings. But it's all much glossier. As the Conference Directory says, "The Liberal Democrat Conferences have become increasingly professional as the party has become increasingly professional." I'm suspicious of the term "professional." It can be used to mean simply that someone has particular qualifications or behaves in a responsible manner. But it can also be used to urge that loyalty to an employer is more important than telling the truth or questioning the principles of a business or institution.

In the case of the Liberal Democrat Conference, one of the things professional seems to mean is sponsorship. The conference is marketed at potential sponsors as "
a fantastic opportunity for companies, societies and organisations to meet thousands of conference attendees face-to-face and increase their brand awareness." I don't know what they pay for these opportunities but I am anxious at some of the organisations paying for access to delegates during debates about national policy.

All fringe meetings to do with health are in an area sponsored by Humana, a profit-making company which works on "NHS commissioning" in the United Kingdom and in the lucrative field of health insurance in the United States. A meeting on "Culture: Today and Tomorrow" is sponsored by Camelot, who are also represented on the panel. Similarly, a fringe panel on "The Future for Home Ownership" is sponsored by Lloyds who have a place on the panel. The National Landlords Association, which includes "promoting ... members' interests to national and local government" among its aims is also represented.

Obviously organisations should be able to stimulate debates and talk to people who are politically active. I may feel doubts about The British Association for Shooting and Conservation who, with The Angling Trust, are sponsoring "The Rural Reception" at which senior MPs are speaking (and for which drinks and canapés are provided). However, campaigning organisations have engaged in dialogue with party politicians for a long time. It seems reasonable that unions and even newspapers should sponsor events or advertise in the conference programme. Politically active people are likely to join unions and read newspapers.
I'm surprised that publicly-funded organisations and charities find money for sponsorship or think it a worthwhile cost - what do they get in return?

But as I look through the list of sponsors, I find some names that puzzle me: Dr Foster Intelligence, Ernst & Young, Bloomberg, Tesco, The Nuclear Industry Association. And why is Asda, wholly owned by the U.S. company Wal-Mart, sponsoring a fringe meeting on "Imagining New Britain: Forging a New National Identity"?

The current Liberal Democrats - just like Labour and the Conservatives - are taking money from big business. They are even advertising privileged access to Members of the British and European Parliament. Monday at the Conference is "Corporate Day" when "senior business leaders" can "meet and engage with "senior parliamentarians". Party leader Nick Clegg and Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable will be there - and there will be a reception at the end of the day. I don't suppose places are free. It sounds like cash for access to me.

Parties may need to sell advertising and access in order to be taken seriously. And it's important to be taken seriously in politics - small parties and independents don't get the same publicity or access to public debates, as ex-Ambassador Craig Murray discovered in the recent Norwich North by-election. But all this sponsorship seems a long way from what I remember of Liberal Assemblies.

Liberalism has been defined in many ways recently. Some commentators in the United States equate it with Marxism. In Europe it's often seen as a right-wing force in politics. For me it is neither.

Back in 1978, I heard Gerard Mulholland define the principles of Liberalism. He spoke as follows:

The first principle of Liberalism … is freedom to live one’s life free from legal restraints, except those which stop your freedom from interfering with somebody else’s.

The next principle is equality before the law and social and economic opportunity to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without discrimination against caste, creed, politics, race or sex.

The third principle is the brotherhood of all people everywhere, with tolerance for the things we dislike, forbearance for the things we don’t understand and joyful celebration of the things we share.

It all adds up to progress towards a fair and just society for the only race that matters – the human race.

The principles he stated were rooted in 17th and 18th century debates on individual liberty. They were passed on like the copy of Milton's Areopagitica which was handed to every new president of the Liberal Party. The interpretation has developed over time but they still seem like good principles to me.

Parties which are dependent on the sponsorship and goodwill of wealthy organisations and big business are a long way from the ideals of liberalism. It doesn't sound much like democracy either.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

"the ballot in our hand"

posted by k

How do we make our votes count?

The question has been raised in a letter in today's Observer which calls for a referendum on proportional representation. Suddenly a new voting system, which has been resisted by parties in power, seems likely.

There are many kinds of proportional representation. In some voters choose a party and leave it to that party to decide which candidates enter parliament. It seems to me to put too much power in the hands of the party.

The system I prefer, which has the unwieldy name of "single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies" has a key advantage: voters put candidates in order of preference. The voter chooses individuals rather than parties and can choose a selection of candidates on their individual merits. It gives the voter a chance to vote against trends in a party and encourages MPs to advance individual manifestos and engage with voters. MPs elected under this system have the authority to be more than lobby-fodder. While parties are likely to continue, they will be weaker and there's more space for independents. Debates in the House of Commons would be genuine debates and an attempt to change people's minds rather than an opportunity to provide soundbites for the next news broadcast. MPs might even turn up to listen as well as to speak. The disadvantage is that constituencies would be larger: perhaps five times the size of current constituencies but with five MPs. However, constituents are much more likely to find at least one MP that represents their views.

Single transferable vote also requires voters to think more - surely a good idea.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us"

posted by k

People don't like MPs. They may like individual Members of Parliament but MPs en masse are unpopular. This isn't new. It's quite healthy for individuals to feel cynical about the people they elect to rule them, so long as that cynicism leads into a proper questioning of representatives and involvement in political debate.

The last weeks have transformed the everyday cynicism into a blend of emotions as members of the public have begun to realise that the dislike they feel for MPs is mild compared with the attitudes many MPs demonstrate for their constituents. A heckler on BBC TV's Question Time got it right when he shouted at Margaret Beckett, "So you are better than us."

There are so many outrageous claims: the plasma TVs, the duck house, tax-funded advice on how to avoid tax, London MPs. It's hard to know how to react when discovering that two MPs so far (the Daily Telegraph has more than 400 MPs yet to investigate) have spent some of their parliamentary allowance on large quantities of horse shit. I've begun to wonder who got the better bargain: Sir David Heathcote-Amory who paid £380.80 for manure at 70p a sack or Sir Peter Viggers who spent nearly £500 for 28 tons of the stuff. It sounds like a question for a maths exam: If the MPs buy their horse shit from the same supplier at the same rate, how much does a sack hold?

There's the flipping of houses, the absurd travel allowances, the purchases ranging from imported rugs and champagne flutes to dogfood and chocolate hobnobs. Our taxes have paid for the maintenance of priavtely-owned trees, moats and swimming pools. Of course we're cross.

I'm wondering how it happened. Some MPs are sorry. Cynicism says, "well, they would say that, wouldn't they?" Others insist it was a mistake (so many mistakes), that they acted within the rules (which they made), that the public are just jealous (of that ugly house!), that we don't understand, that officials were at fault, that they deserve our sympathy. There are occasional instances of courage when bemused MPs face the wrath of the voters. And then there are the minority: MPs who didn't fiddle expenses or see how much they could get but thought it their duty to do their job without seeing how much they could get from the Fees Office. I expect some of the MPs who've been blamed for their expenses really did make mistakes or were doing their best to behave ethically in a bad system. Institutions where bad practices are common drag good people down.

But when I feel sorry for MPs (and I do; their position must be horrid), I remember the way the government urges us to "name and shame" all kinds of people, urging us in advertisements to denounce benefit frauds for stealing our taxes. I think of good teachers who've had nervous breakdowns or left their jobs because they couldn't cope with the constant surveillance and the tick-box inspection regime. I think of hard workers who have been condemned for not meeting standards set by artbitrary league tables - government-set standards that change every year. I think of the way the public has been encourage not just to accept government surveillance but to be involved in watching and judging others.
Public humiliation has been a government tactic for years.

That's enough on what the MPs have done. The important question is what we - who are not MPs - do about it. However right we are to lose trust in our MPs, this is a political crisis. In the middle of an economic mess and all kinds of international turmoil, we find we can't trust the people who make the laws and all sorts of decisions on our behalf. So what happens next?

One advantage of late middle age is that I know things can be different. I know this because things were different when I was growing up. There wasn't always a common assumption that value could be measured by income and the display of luxury. When I was preparing to leave university, there were articles in the press urging good graduates to go into industry, assuring them that industry, just as much as public service, could bring benefit to the country as a whole. As students we talked about doing good and helping others without irony and didn't expect to be mocked for such ambitions.

If we once believed in public service, we can believe in it again - but it may mean rethinking many current ideas.
We all need to debate - urgently - what we want from parliament and what a democracy is. I assume we all agree that MPs should be paid, because we don't want a wealth qualification for parliament. But how much should they be paid? In retrospect I'm impressed by Dave Nellist's decision to take only 40% of his parliamentary salary, giving the rest to charities and his local Labour constituency association so that he could live on a "worker's wage." MPs need to be in touch with the living standards of their constituents.

Less than a hundred years ago, MPs weren't paid. Working-class MPs (and there were a few) were dependent on funds raised by supporters and constituency parties. In 1911, an MP's salary of £400 per year was introduced and MPs had the further advantage of free travel on the railways. It was a fairly good salary for the times; it was more than twice the average annual salary for a teacher but less than a third of what a barrister or solicitor would expect to earn. However there was no second home allowance; MPs had to make their own arrangements, pay their own staff and meet all other expenses. Many MPs had other jobs while others - particularly Labour MPs - saw their parliamentary duties as their job.

What is an MP's job? Should an MP be independent, take instructions from constituents, follow the manifesto regardless of changing circumstances or act as lobby fodder for a party? Is an MP's main work helping constituents or is this intervention just a means of garnering votes and keeping a job? What say should MPs have on creating and approving laws - and how much attention should they pay to the details of drafting? And who should keep an eye on what MPs are doing?

These used to be theoretical questions - the sort of thing raised by students and in debating societies. The role of MPs was determined by MPs themselves. Parliament judged the conduct of its members. Now public debate may affect what happens next - and there will be a general election in less than a year.

I don't know who passed the information about MPs expenses to John Wick or why it was brought into the public domain just over a fortnight ago. It may have been released by someone concerned for the public good, for money or to advance a particular agenda. Now we know some of what's been going on and there will be more relevations which could easily continue till the end of June or beyond.

MPs look shocked and battered. The voters are shocked and battered too. I think people are suddenly realising that a vote isn't enough; citizens have to consider what kind of government they want and try to make their voices heard.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Craig Murray gives evidence today

posted by k

Craig Murray, sacked as British ambassador to Uzbekistan and smeared by New Labour for the offence of publicly opposing British collusion in torture, gives evidence to the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee today (Tuesday 28th April) at 1.45 p.m.

Read more HERE.

Watch Craig Murray's evidence live at the parliamentary website HERE.

This is the first time Craig Murray has been able to give his evidence officially although he first spoke out in 2004.

I hope the press will cover his evidence - it's still important.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Lost Principles of Policing

The Nine Principles of Policing were written in 1829, expanding on Sir Robert Peel's original Nine Points of Policing. Copies were issued to all members of the Metropolitan Police. There is some uncertainty about authorship. What is certain is that over the last 180 years, the themes which lie behind these philosophical guidelines have been forgotten.

The Nine Principles of Policing:

1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.


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Sunday, April 19, 2009

"the lie of Authority"

posted by k

I hesitated to post about the policing of the G20 protests in London. I wasn't there. But for once it was possible to follow the confusion and complexity of what happened through press reports. The Guardian's live blog, using Twitter, was particularly helpful as it gave brief reports with times as the events happened.

Watching from my laptop, it seemed to me that the policing was sprodaically more violent than it needed to be from the very beginning of the protest. The attack on RBS, initially by a single protestor (against protests from at least one fellow-demonstrator) and then by a small group, was puzzling.

RBS is currently the most unpopular bank in the country because of the arguments about the pension of its previous boss Sir Fred Goodwin (Fred the Shred). There had been an attack on his home and some of his cars and newspapers and journals all over the world were suggesting that banks and bankers were in danger. So why wasn't the RBS building in the city of London boarded up, like all the neighbouring shops and offices, during the G20 demonstrations? It's as though someone wanted a nice, photogenic attack on a bank.

Looking at photos of the event, I'm struck by how few people were involved in the attack on the bank. There's a crowd of demonstrators, press and photographers simply watching and recording what is going on. The attack on the bank was plainly not the action of the majority of demonstrators. It could probably have been stopped by the police at the very beginning - but it wasn't.

Publicity before the event may have suggested there would be violent protests and that bankers would be in danger. The call to "hang the bankers" was plainly understood as a joke and there were similar jokes from city employees. As in previous years, city workers waved bank notes at the protestors.

But everything began to turn nasty. There was a report of a man dying of a heart attack, rescued by heroic police as anti-capitalist demonstrators pelted them with bottles. That report came from the police and it turned out to be a lie. A series of videos showed the man, Ian Tomlinson, being pushed by the police and hit with a baton. He was attacked by a one of a group of police who were masked and had removed their identification numbers. It was a group of demonstrators, including a medical student, who went to his rescue and they were initially told by police to go away. The latest post mortem suggests that the cause of death was the police attack on Ian Tomlinson. As for the thrown bottles, one account suggested that a single plastic bottle might have been thrown before all the demonstrators realised that someone needed urgent help. The Guardian's collection of witness statements gives a better idea of what happened than any single source can provide.

Usually demonstrators aren't taken seriously when they talk about police conduct. When I was held in a pen by the police some years ago (there were 75 of us on an anti-war demo and 200 police), the police initially denied both the numbers involved and the length of time we'd been held. It was a shame for them that they also penned in the editor of a small local paper.

This time, the demonstrators had cameras which recorded events. And, although press photographers were sometimes told to move away and stop filming, they had pictures and video footage too. Again, the Guardian has led the way in assembling video evidence and posting it on the newspaper's website. Other newspapers have also commented on the way the protests were policed and on the death of Ian Tomlinson. This was just as well as the initial reports said that there was no police film and no CCTV footage. The Police Complaints Commission has now admitted that this was untrue.

Although between 1 in 25 and 1 in 50 of the British population took part in demonstrations against the Iraq war, the advance publicity about the G20 demonstrations has led to mistrust of the demonstrators. It's worth reading what they have to say. It's also helpful to look at the film of the Climate Camp to understand what most of the demonstration was like and how the police caused most of the violence. I found the video in the Daily Mail which is emphatically not a left-wing paper nor a supporter of the protests.

The conclusion of the video, in which the police attack the protestors, suggests that the police aren't "out of control," as is often suggested. When I see the police at demonstration or at railways stations on football match days, they are wearing earpieces so that they can receive orders and act in a co-ordinated way. It seems to me that the police are very much "under control" - and that is much more frightening.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

"I am a camera"

posted by k

It took the News Quiz to alert me to the latest change in the law. The police are to have new powers to stop us taking their photos. They're using a provision of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008.

It's rapidly becoming impossible to obey the law. Taking a snapshot of a tourist site may turn out to be illegal. More seriously, what would happen if a member of the public witnessed a police officer commiting a crime or abusing police powers and tried to document this by taking a picture? A ban on photographing the police adds to police powers and makes it easier for rogue officers - or rogue forces - to break the law, suppress the evidence and punish the witnesses. This should not be possible in a free, democratic society.

Soon pictures like this will be illegal. Although the police are concealing neither their faces nor their weapons, we're told that taking their pictures may put them at risk.

Perhaps I'm old-fashioned. I grew up with a police force that rarely carried weapons, in the days before tasers had been invented. Nowadays even police without guns carry an arsenal of alternative weapons strung about their waists. We've come a long way from Dixon of Dock Green and the respect given to a friendly neighbourhood bobby.

I know Dixon was a fiction but the myth gave good policemen a kind of gentle authority. Dixon's salute at the end of each episode as he bade goodbye to the audience with the phrase, "Evening, all," suggested a police force that worked with and respected the public. Big guns, tasers and laws that threaten our freedom don't make me feel that the police respect me. They don't make me feel safer. They make me feel afraid.

There hasn't been much publicity for this latest change in the law but there is a demonstration on Monday 16th February. Press photographers, whose freedom is also threatened, will be taking part and the comedian Mark Thomas will be taking part.

Meanwhile, there's interesting potential for a conflict of laws. A publican in Islington has been told he must install CCTV as a condition of his licence. But what happens if a policeman enters his pub?

But we shouldn't worry. The provisions of the Act won't be abused. We can be sure of thus. The government keeps telling us so.

A fellow contributor to this blog directed me to gizmonaut who, as often, follows this issue far more comprehensively. Evidently a busy week at work prevented me from paying sufficient attention to the blogosphere.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

"Nothing ever happened."

posted by k

Harold Pinter died on Christmas Eve. When the news was released on Christmas Day, poters on the BBC's Have Your Say site rushed to condemn him, as though there were a peculiar merit in being first to condemn a man after he has died.

I don't understand that attitude. When icons of the right - even dictators - die, I try not to rejoice. I may sometimes feel relieved that people are free from fear as a result but there's something disgusting in publicly rejoicing at a fellow-human's death. Those who have suffered abuse or worse may be allowed their celebrations but these come from so twisted a world and so bad an experience that we should offer sympathy and understanding rather than trying to outdo them in shrieking hurrahs.

Many people disliked Pinter. He wasn't afraid of controversy and, like all of us, was imperfect. But he was willing to speak for those in need of help and for those who were threatened by state power. I wouldn't always agree with him but I admired his willingness to be engaged and to speak out, when silence would have been easier. I wonder how much his sympathy with oppressed people grew out of his experience as a Jewish tailor's son at school in the East End of London. He must have been fourteen or fifteen when the newsreel film of Belsen was shown in cinemas. Yet he became a conscientious objector in the late 1940s and, more recently, associated himself with Jewish campaigners who called for justice for Palestinians as well as Jews in Israel. These weren't popular or easy positions to hold.

Many of the swift attacks on Pinter target his work as a playwright, calling him "talentless," "shallow" and, of course, "intellectual." There's a laziness in most of the criticism. As a playwright, Pinter continually experimented and took risks. He also, in his early plays, wrote about working-class people - not nice, cosy, working-class people but people who were complex, hopeful, dangerous, often at odds with their society and one another. I'm no expert on Pinter's plays but they make me think - and that's high praise.

As a writer, Pinter cared about language and its relation to truth. The lecture he gave after receiving the Nobel prize for literature has, as its title, "Art, Truth and Politics." it was deeply concerned with two subjects: the way in which language can be abused to conceal the truth and the way in which government and the media prevent us from knowing the acts of horror which are committed on our behalf. Pinter's speech, famously, attacked the United States' role in supporting military dictatorships, and the way in which the United States' conduct is widely ignored. With corruscating irony, Pinter said:

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest."

And that's true of so many horrors, from bombing civilians to starvation and the destruction of the planet. It's easier not to know. It's certainly easier not to think about the grief, the corpses, the injuries, the sheer mess of wars and bombings conducted on our behalf. Again in his Nobel lecture, Pinter quoted Neruda (writing of Republican Spain):

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!"

Harold Pinter insisted that we see the reality, sure that if enough people saw what was really happening elsewhere, their common humanity and decency would ensure a gentler and more generous outcome.

Pinter's death came only four days after the death of another campaigning writer, the poet Adrian Mitchell. He too was concerned that people see and acknowledge the truth. His most famous poem, "To whom it may concern," was written about Vietnam but many of its words can be applied to all sorts of uncomfortable truths that we would prefer not to know. The economy is built on debt and injustice. We have prospered because other people starve. Our government sends its servants to lie, torture, maim and kill. Children born in this country are locked away because their parents are asylum-seekers. Even in Britain - even in peaceful suburbs - our fellow humans sleep in doorways and on pavements and don't have enough to eat. Lies are more comfortable. We can live in our cosy world where "Nothing ever happened" and choose the newspaper that tells us our lies of choice.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

"How can we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?"

posted by k

The Barclay brothers, millionaire owners of The Daily Telegraph, claimed that they were bringing democracy to Sark. In a series of court cases, they overturned Sark's rule of primogenture, which laid down the rule that property should pass from the father to the eldest son, and then gained a judgement that replaced Sark's feudal system with a general election.

It all sounded fine. Sark is one of the tiniest inhabited Channel Islands with a population of about 600. Its laws and customs have seemed quaint rather than dangerous and, to the outsider, this tiny island where transport is by bicycle, tractor or horse-drawn vehicle seems picturesquely old-fashioned. Until the Barclay brothers bought the neighbouring island of Brecqou, no-one really worried that the island was run by the absolute power of the Seigneur, who held the island in fief from the Queen. I'm a republican and a democrat so not in favour of the system and I'd worry that it might favour the rich and established families over the poor workers. If I'd been asked, I'd have said Sark should have free elections, just like the rest of Europe.

Sark had its first general election yesterday. I don't know the details of the campaign but there were fifty-seven candidates for the 28 seats in Chief Pleas, at the parliament is known. The Barclay brothers involved themselves in campaigning, using the Sark newspaper they own as well as The Daily Telegraph, which they also own. They warned the voters not to vote against the candidates they supported, using personal attacks and threats. The voters were warned that a vote against the Barclay brothers' candidates - for instance, in favour of income tax or against the introduction of motor vehicles - would risk the withdrawal of the Barclays' investment in Sark. Perhaps as many as a quarter of the inhabitants of Sark work for the Barclay brothers. Their employers were threatening them: "Vote as we say, or you'll be out of a job." There is no social security on Sark.

It sounds like a lively election campaign - a difficult one, too, with major disagreements. Almost 90% of the electorate turned out and the result went to a recount. The voters didn't respond to the Barclays' attempt to win the election - they resisted methods which look like bribery or blackmail to me (but I suppose the Barclays had expensive legal advice to tell them how far they could go). The methods of the Barclay brothers don't sound democratic to me - they sound like an attempt to purchase power.

It turned out that the voters of Sark were brave enough to defy the two men who thought they had a right to say who sat in Sark's parliament. The Barclay brothers don't have control of Chief Pleas because Sark voters chose not to be intimidated. But now the Barclay brothers are carrying out their threat.

The businesses owned by the Barclay brothers - hotels, restaurants, building firms, estate agents, shops - are being closed down
. People are thrown into unemployment and poverty just in time for Christmas. It's a more brutally feudal attitude than Sark is used to. The servants didn't do what the bosses wanted and now they're being punished.

The Barclay brothers are the owners of a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Daily Telegraph. I don't think that people who use threats to try influence the outcome of an election are proper people to own a newspaper. I'm going to boycott The Daily Telegraph, which I've bought on occasion, for as long as the Barclay brothers own it. How about you?

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Milton's Birthday

John Milton was born 400 years ago today.
"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to my conscience, above all liberties."
"No man who know aught can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free."

The world of words-on-the-page, the world of ideas, of the free expression and exchange of ideas is being perverted and stifled perhaps as never before. The increasingly less subtle domination of reports by an official line, by the apparatchiks of the new-establishments whether in the UK or the USA, is becoming more effective and extensive with access to tools beyond the dreams of the more primitively effective practices of a Third Reich or a Soviet system.

We live in a sound-bite culture in which shortened attention spans and a reduced capacity for recollection and linkage has its effect. Shifts in the priorities of a profit-led education sector have reinforced the roll-back of the development of a free mind. By way of one example, I suggest a brief reference from which I quote: "The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive." This from the USA rather than the UK , but there are UK commentaries on the perversion and erosion of our Education system from Gold Stars in the Nursery to the award of a Master's. And now, as a part of the “Every Child Matters” programme, the Common Assessment Framework begins with the unborn (Contact Point, the associated widely accessible database on our children, goes live in January). Supposed to be selectively applied , the practice of this Social Policing will become commonplace. Even Thatcher would be spinning in her grave (whaddya mean she's not dead yet?).

The dilution of a rooting of human understanding of the world we occupy, its histories, its context, is a part of the "empowerment" of Authority as the source of wisdom and a reduction of the capacity to challenge. We have for many years had a range of observations on what is going on. Suddenly, the integration of what is going on is accelerating. And it is beginning to be evident that these people are now so certain of their rectitude and power that they no longer much care that we know it - they have enough people who are sufficiently ignorant, self-obsessed and with the attention-span of a jellyfish for then to get away with it.

We yet retain the liberty to speak and write, although that is under threat. We no longer have the liberties of public demonstration. Parliament itself is at risk and might be seen by some as on the brink of becoming defunct; the nu-Labour Members are willing to sacrifice the authority of their House and Constitutional protections on Parliament to the Party and its Government. But it is not just through political action that ideas which change a world view can come to influence.

My view that the fifth world war progresses might come to a conclusion without hope - that the play upon the greater stage will dictate the shape of the future and that the performance precludes other than tinkering with the script. Yet I would retain hope while we have the power of expression. We must needs use that in what way we can be that direct politics, life example, creative expression or the (reducing) capacity for conversation in the local pub. We can write our own small scripts. The Fringe Performers. Else “The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie.” - Yevgeny Yevtushenko. But be aware of the utter ruthlessness of the censors, the critics, the audience. To resist the established, to challenge the zeitgeist requires that you cease to value your position, your job, your comforts, your preconceptions, your physical liberty, your reputation, your home, all that represents your material welfare. This is not that you necessarily relinquish them. It is that you cannot value them for it might be necessary that they are relinquished. To give value to them other than as any more than passing tools precludes the logic of resistance. I might prefer to echo Blake: “What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song? Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price of all the man hath, his house, his wife, his children. Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy ...”

To return to Milton, whose conception of freedom of expression was rooted in freedom for the exercise of God's Will and might be tainted by that for the modern reader. Many of his arguments in Areopagitica stand beyond that limitation."I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." And who, then, might we be to refuse to accept "God's Will" (alternatively faith in the power of reason and conscience) for ourselves and in our applications of wit? To refuse the courage to articulate our visions of the world? For there is always another way of looking at that world. If we seek to silence that, whether in others or in ourselves, we are diminished.

"What did 'Liberty' mean, grandad?"


"Bliss was it in that dawn"

posted by k

John Milton was born 400 years ago today. In his pamphlet, Areopagitica, after which this blog is named, he argued for the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. There were limits to his ideas of freedom of the press but he sketched out, in ringing tones, his belief that liberty and progress were dependent on the search for knowledge, truth and understanding.

Milton's ideas came out of that anxious and hopeful period in English history when parliament was at war with the king. He wrote this pamphlet three years before the Putney Debates in which, for the first time, the idea of one man one vote was advanced, and five years before the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the English Commonwealth. It was a period of immense danger, of grief and the separation of families. It was also a time when individuals questioned authority and took responsibility for debating the future of the country.

Areopagitica shows the excitement of debate at the time, when so many people were willing to look outwards and think questioningly about the world, risking their own safety to enter in a debate about the government of their country. Key questions hinged on liberty and what we would now call "human rights":

"Behold now this vast City: a City of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompast and surrounded with his protection; the shop of warre hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed Justice in defence of beleaguer'd Truth, then there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. What could a man require more from a Nation so pliant and so prone to seek after knowledge. What wants there to such a towardly and pregnant soile, but wise and faithfull labourers, to make a knowing people, a Nation of Prophets, of Sages, and of Worthies. We reck'n more then five months yet to harvest; there need not be five weeks, had we but eyes to lift up, the fields are white already. Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making."

Milton lost and the cause he loved - the Commonwealth - faded. After eleven years, Charles II was invited back by parliament. The leaders of the Commonwealth were hanged, drawn and quartered for their part in the execution of the king. Milton was lucky to survive.

But the ideas of Milton and his contemporaries lived on. In the nineteenth century, working-class radicals were among the most enthusiastic readers of Milton. Thomas Cooper, the self-taught Leicester Chartist, set out to learn the whole of Paradise Lost by heart before he was twenty. He managed only the first three books but Milton's ideas - and other ideas of the 1640s - influenced his writings and popular public lectures.

Milton was in the mainstream too. When English literature became part of formal education in the 19th century, Milton was taught as one of England's great authors. He turned up in classrooms and on the curriculum for A-level English. I remember being shocked when, in 1988, Conservative Education Secretary Kenneth Baker pioneered a National Curriculum in English - and left John Milton out. The mid-17th century was represented instead by a smattering of minor poetry. The great English-language epic - not to mention the plays and essays - was omitted.

Tony Blair's government didn't reinstate Milton. They were more concerned with the appearance of improvement than offering teenagers challenge and excitement. I don't suppose Milton's willingness to question authority suited either Conservative or New Labour governments. I haven't noticed much teaching about the 17th century in school history lessons. It's certainly possible to leave school without knowing that England was ever a republic. I suspect it's possible to leave university with a degree in English without reading a word of Milton. It's certainly rare for students to read the pamphlets.

Reading Milton was my introduction to Britain's radical past. I read most of Milton for pleasure - I loved the exhilaration of his language as well as his engagement with the ideas of his time. It didn't matter that some was difficult. I took what I could from a first reading and returned later, for more. Milton may have slipped from the public consciousness but I don't think he'll be forgotten for ever.

Happy 400th birthday, John Milton - and thank you.

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