Thursday, July 26, 2007

Did I miss something?

posted by k
(with apologies for double posting)

Did I miss something?

I read the newspapers yesterday and found that Gordon Brown (our prime minister - it's hard to get used to the change) was threatening a state of emergency. No-one seemed shocked or surprised. No-one made it the lead story in the papers this morning.

I keep looking at accounts of what was said. I keep hoping I've got this all wrong.

Gordon Brown said that he planned to ask parliament to double the time suspects could be detained without trial. He said there were two main options: either parliament would vote as he said or, whenever he wanted to hold suspects for longer, he would declare a state of emergency which would allow him to detain suspects for a further thirty days.

Presumably Mr Brown is talking about the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. This allows the Prime Minister or other Ministers to make legislation without consulting parliament in certain situations. According to section 19 of the Act, these are:

(a) an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in the United Kingdom or in a Part or region

(b) an event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment of the United Kingdom or of a Part or region, or

(c) war, or terrorism, which threatens serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom

Presumably Gordon Brown will claim that section (c) applies. That won't be accurate. Gordon Brown is threatening MPs and peers with a state of emergency should they dare to vote against him. The "emergency" he claims is the failure of parliament to do the bidding of the prime minister. That's not how parliament is supposed to work.

Parliament is supposed to be a democracy. Our elected representatives are supposed to vote on the law.

The Civil Contingencies Act is a very dangerous law. It allows the Prime Minister, acting alone, to amend any Act of Parliament except the Human Rights Act 1998 for the period of the emergency. When the Act was debated, Members of the House of Lords attempted to protect laws that they regarded as fundamental to the British constitution. They were unsuccessful. If the Prime Minister declares a state of emergency he can even suspend the following laws:

Bill of Rights 1689

Act of Settlement 1700

Habeas Corpus Act 1816

Parliament Act 1911 (limiting parliaments to five years)

House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975

After thirty days, he has to ask for parliament's approval.

We have a new prime minister who has warned our elected representatives that if they don't do as he says, he'll stamp his foot and rule without them for a month. If they won't let him lock people up for longer, he'll say it's an emergency and do it anyway.

What else might Mr Brown do in those thirty days of emergency?

What would be left when the emergency was over?

Where are the protests?

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

"the expense of others' freedom"

posted by k

I'm not sure how Chavez will turn out. At this distance, I can't work my way securely through the arguments about him. In John Pilger's film, The War on Democracy, Chavez comes across as a man of immense charm and feeling, but in Latin American politics, this isn't necessarily enough. Whatever his good intentions, the forces ranged against him are strong and it is painfully easy for good intentions to mutate into repression.

Pilger's awkward, angry film makes one case irrefutably: that the United States is an empire which endangers the rest of the world.

That's not a comfortable case to make. United States mythology combines the idea of itself as saviour and defender of the world with the curious sense of America as a victim. But it's not me who makes the case, nor even John Pilger. The case is made most powerfully in Pilger's film by a series of CIA officers, notably Duane Clarridge.
Confronted with the argument that officers of the United States have overthrown governments, torturing and killing the defenders of democracy, Clarridge is vigorous in opposing Pilger's accusations. He insists that the numbers Pilger cites are too high - that there weren't thousands killed in Chile but merely hundreds. The documentation of higher numbers is, he insists, part of a vast conspiracy with Amnesty International at its centre. But if it comes down to it he will, he agrees, sanction any amount of killing, rape and torture where United States interests are threatened.

Against Clarridge and the defenders of United States interests are pitted the poor and the torture victims. Sister Dianna Ortiz, a nun who worked in Guatemala, stands for all that is good in America. She recalls the horrors that provoked her disillusion with her government; in 1989 she was abducted, tortured and gang raped by American-trained torturers, who eventually stopped raping her on the orders of their American boss. As a United States citizen her life was more precious that the lives of Latin American politicians or the poor. From her experience, Dianna Ortiz insists that there is nothing exceptional about Abu Ghraib; she recognized it, from her experience, as the American way of empire.

For the British, there is no comfortable way out. Britain's empire has its own horrors in recent times and events in the 1920s are precursors of My Lai and Falluja. We are assumed to be, as Clarridge says, the beneficiaries of torture. We are responsible.

The film raises a further question. What is being defended is not just the interests of the United States but the interests of big companies and the rich. Early contrasts between luxurious mansions and the crumbling barrios set up an opposition between rich and poor which resonates through the film. An impicit question is asked: what happens when the natural resources and infrastructure of a nation are stolen from the nation as a whole and sold to rich people, many of whom live overseas. That is happening here too. Harold Macmillan, conservative peer and former Prime Minister was driven to accuse Margaret Thatcher of "selling off the family silver". That was in the early days of privatisation.

Here too the gap between rich and poor is widening, though it is nothing like as severe as in Latin America, with its dollar-billionaires and starving peasants. Most people will probably go on accepting the idea that things are as they must be, that power should lie with corporations rather than elected government, that democracy is somehow inextricable from the free market. But I don't accept it.

Suppose we protested against the sale of our resources and voted for a radical, nationalising government. Would we end up victims of U.S.-sponsored death squads? Would our singers suffer the fate of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands were smashed to silence his guitar? He went on singing. U.S.-sponsored fascists beat him some more. Machine guns turned his flesh into corpse.

His songs and courage survive.

John Pilger's film The War on Democracy is on release in the United Kingdom - only in a few independent cinemas. The film will be distributed in New Zealand and Australia. So far as I can see, it is not being distributed in the United States.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

"true allegiance"

posted by k

As a Brit, I find it slightly disturbing that children in the United States are expected to pledge allegiance to a gaudy piece of cloth. The pledge began with good intentions (the first version was written by a Christian Socialist). However, the idea of equality was omitted - apparently the text could only be agreed by making concessions to misogynists and racists.

The United States came into being with the Declaration of Independence, setting out the grounds on which a colony had the right to initiate revolution against a tyrannical ruler. It's still worth reading.

British subjects (Britain does not have citizens) can vote for qualified candidates for parliament. But MPs who don't believe in monarchy can't take their seats unless they're prepared to lie. Even the most moderate republican - someone who would do no more than vote for a republic if given the chance - is banned from taking a seat in parliament. Electors are allowed to vote for an honest republican but, should they do so, they will not be represented in parliament.

All new Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords are compelled to swear an oath of allegiance to the queen and her heirs.

A country which bars electors from choosing the representatives of their choice is not a democracy.

Gordon Brown has started a debate about constitutional reform.

The country may not be ready to become a republic. It may not be ready to debate the choice between a monarchy and a republic. But surely it's time to allow honest republicans to take their seats in the House of Commons.

There's a new petition on the Downing Street website. The text is simple and straightforward:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to ensure that the Oath taken by Peers and MPs no longer pledges loyalty to the Monarchy.

You can sign the petition by clicking HERE.

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