Archive for the 'General' Category


Can You Guess Which Country It is Yet?

Monday, April 27th, 2020

It is not as obvious as it seems

Imagine a European country. A militarily successful one. One which, however annoying – and, oh, did it make a nuisance of itself in many varied ways – could not be ignored. One led by a self-regarding, popular leader (with a penchant for mistresses) around whom government revolved. A leader who, after a period of stasis, took action, to the delight of those around him. A leader who seemed set fair to revive the country’s fortunes.

A country which decided to revoke a Treaty which had been around for decades, entered into after a period of vicious communal in-fighting. This decision, taken in order to revive and enhance the country’s fortunes, caused consternation both inside and outside the country and damaged its reputation in the eyes of some. Other countries felt that the leadership could not be trusted. Generations who had been taught – and felt – that diverse communities could live side by side now felt unwanted and insecure. Many skilled workers left and fled to other more welcoming countries, to their enduring benefit and a loss for the country they left.

Not long after these events this country faced serious opposition from a league of other European countries. It fatally underestimated this league and what it could or would do. It imagined that its members would fall into disunity. It disregarded the ambitions and determination of a near neighbour. This underestimation has been described by historians as its greatest geopolitical failure in its history. (Strong words, indeed, when you think what happened next.)

Around the same time, a natural disaster befell this country. About 1.5 million people died of disease and starvation. Circa 600,000 died in a second wave. There was an economic crisis: few were producing, few were consuming, few were paying tax.

Over time the country fell into decline. The leadership’s natural supporters no longer felt quite so enamoured of those who governed them. When the leadership’s fall came, it was sudden and brutal. Eventually, the country was eclipsed by its close neighbour.

Go on. Admit it. You thought I was describing Brexit Britain and its future. But no. Look no further than Louis XIV, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the flight of the Huguenots, the two Grandes Famines of the 1690’s and 1710’s and their short and long-term consequences.

Still, as the French might say: “Plus ça change…..”.



Amber Warnings – What might be the signals that all is not well in a democracy?

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

How much should we be concerned about extremism?

Just as it is easy to be complacent about a country’s immunity to extremism (“If it didn’t happen before, it won’t happen now”), it is all too easy for any suggested change to the existing constitutional or political set up to be described as the first step towards whichever form of extremism most worries the commentator, especially if from a political opponent. 

This focus on who is behind a proposal – rather than on what it is – is itself an example of a worrying personalisation of politics, as if the value of policies is only dependant on who supports them rather than on anything intrinsic. It is suggestive of a potentially dangerous flight from any sort of grounded principles against which ideas can be tested. If the only real test becomes “My side right, yours wrong” how can anything be sensibly judged? 

It is worth remembering that change, per se, is not a bad thing. If voters are dissatisfied, that dissatisfaction should be addressed, not ignored. Describing an attempt to respond to such concerns as populism, as if this were a complete answer, is lazy. Some level of popularity with the voting public is surely essential in a democracy. The concerns arise when other factors are present:-

  • People feeling that they are no longer top dog, as they should be, or are unnecessarily restricted in some way and seeking something or someone to blame.
  • Politicians promoting the “X is to blame” narrative rather than explaining what the causes are, why they may be a little more complicated and not so easily solved as voters – or politicians would like voters to – think.
  • A refusal to acknowledge the complexities of, or trade-offs required by, any solutions or, indeed, that there may be no easy, quick or cost-free solutions.
  • Impatience with any difficulties or restraints and a wish to remove obstacles. This can be admirable, indeed essential, inertia always being easier than action. It’s when it develops into a refusal to listen to any sort of advice or alternative views or even to admit to the possibility of compromise that it risks becoming dangerous. Developing a healthy balance between fresh thinking and a “can do” approach and listening to experience, advice and knowledge is one of the hardest tasks for governments. When talk turns to “traitors”, “quislings”, “saboteurs”, “Enemies of the People or “enemies within” that balance has been lost.
  • A tendency to fetishise “The People”, their “Willthe “People’s Government”. Or to see one party as their one and only true representative, a tendency going back to the 1994 Labour manifesto describing Labour as “the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole”.
  • It is often accompanied by admiration for a strong decisive leader, whose record, instincts or behaviours (however doubtful) must not be questioned. It is an understandable reaction to weak leadership. Even so, the indispensability of individual leaders – as opposed to good leadership – is overrated.
  • An unwillingness to tolerate any sort of dissent or divergence of view, either within parties or more widely. Diversity – at least of opinion and perspective (in truth, the only kind worth valuing) – is not valued at all in reality.  

Crucially, there seems much more willingness to believe that the end justifies the means. Look at the way there is a blind eye to behaviour from the side a politician/commentator/voter supports that would be severely criticised were it done by – or even alleged against – a political opponent. See, for instance, the different reactions to bullying allegations against John Bercow and Priti Patel. The one step which might shed some light on matters – investigation – is all but ignored. Culpability or otherwise is less important than the level of support a politician has and the importance of the work they are doing. Indispensability not integrity matters. Principles or any over-arching moral framework thus become expendable or endlessly elastic.

The best – and most alarming example of this – was the manner in which Labour succumbed to the virus of anti-semitism in a very short time frame, despite – or perhaps because of – its conviction that it was a moral, anti-racist and therefore “good” party. Having satisfied itself of its impeccably anti-racist position, it felt no need to ask itself any questions about the leader it elected, the people he attracted, those he made his closest advisors and why, despite his repeated claims to be doing so, he was unable to deal with the issue. The default instinct was to attack those who pointed this out, describe the concerns as smears and generally behave like an aggrieved victim. Corbyn is on his way out but his time as leader is an example of how easily apparently important and long-held principles can be abandoned, especially when hatred and defeat of some Other (the Tories, in this case) is all that matters. 

This is not just a lesson for Labour. It is a lesson for voters too. Over 10 million of them rationalised away any queasiness they may have felt and voted for a party which shares the unenviable claim of being, like the neo-Nazi BNP, investigated by the EHRC for anti-semitism and institutional racism. This was not a deal-breaker. 

If this can happen to a party of government, it can happen to the country. We cannot say with confidence that Britain has some sort of innate antipathy to extremism or hatred of minorities. And note one other lesson: when the EHRC inquiry was announced, some in Labour questioned whether the EHRC’s role should be reviewed. How telling. Attack the very concept of being judged by an independent body. How like the response of the government to court judgments which limited what it can do. The reaction was not to reflect on why they were in such a position but to attack any body which dared question their behaviour. Judges ruling on the law, the sole purpose of a judge, was repurposed as “judicial activism”, sounding altogether more sinister and therefore to be stopped or limited. 

It is time to be wary when those in power – or wanting it – seek to restrict any sort of external scrutiny, whether by the press or the people through the courts. If governments cannot be trusted to obey the law or think they should be above it or make it practically more difficult to challenge them, it is worth asking why they are doing this and what it means for us and our rights. How will these be protected? And by whom?



Political rights and wrongs

Wednesday, March 11th, 2020

Worrying signs of moves towards illiberalism

Opposition parties often complain about the unfairness of the rules of the political game. Until they win a majority. Even the Tories have sung this song. Given their attachment to FPTP – which has delivered Tory governments for 45 out of the last 75 years – they have presented self-interest in more technical (unfair boundaries) or high-flown terms. It was Lord Hailsham who popularised the phrase “elective dictatorship” to describe the ability of a government with a Commons majority to pass laws without having a wide enough support in the country (“wide enough support” left conveniently undefined). This objection, raised during a Labour government, disappeared from view as soon as the Tories won power, also with a limited range of support in the country. It was not the rules Hailsham objected to, it seems, more that the wrong chaps were able to benefit from them.

Setting the cynicism aside, what does stop governments using a Parliamentary majority to do something quite unconscionable (and, no, I don’t mean Brexit)? For instance, the removal of citizenship or other liberties normally enjoyed in a free society from certain groups? Or – a real example – the use of interrogation techniques amounting to torture to defeat an armed insurgency in the state. Does it even matter if it does, if that is what people voted for?

Rulers’ self-restraint is one of the most important – if less formal – ways by which governments control themselves. The belief that there are some limits, generally understood and shared despite political differences, beyond which you do not go because it is not the “done thing”, not the British way, not least because when you are out of power you don’t want to be on the receiving end. It is the “good chaps” theory of government. Coupled with that is a belief that even a democratic system requires checks and balances, that the system of government has a value which should be preserved and endure beyond the needs or desires of those in power at any one time. 

Two unacknowledged – or maybe forgotten – reasons for self-restraint were the memories of WW2 and the examples of Communist societies. The horrors perpetrated by governments claiming to represent (and in some cases doing so) the People’s Will were a reminder of the importance of boundaries for rulers, of independent civic and other institutions able to challenge government, of what happens when civilised norms are abandoned, of the importance of realising that “might” does not make “right”, of the differences between democracy and despotism and the value of freedom and liberties under the former. 

Those lived historical memories have faded. Western democracy is generally seen as having won the battle with Russian-inspired Communism. Chinese totalitarianism is not (yet) seen as a threat. Indeed, some aspects of Chinese control may be seen, in some circumstances, as necessary. There are new battles to be fought; politicians are either from a new generation or consider themselves responsible for different priorities. The distinction between democracy and despotism, the ability or willingness of even democratic governments to limit or disregard freedoms or rights in favour of some apparently more important purpose is not perhaps as well understood – or feared – as it ought to be. Even countries which only recently escaped Communist rule are willing to embrace the idea of “illiberal democracy”, an explicit challenge to the basic assumptions underpinning Western political norms since the war – that even democratically elected governments need independent institutions as a safeguard against government excesses, against a “tyranny of the majority”.

It is easy to take what we have – and have had for so long – for granted. The British conventions governing democracy and the consensus around them endure for as long as they are understood, believed and accepted. They become vulnerable, their weaknesses exposed when the reasons for them are forgotten or not valued or not understood. What if it is not “good chaps” who are elected? What if they are seen as stultifying by those impatient to effect change and willing to get rid of anything in their way? Or if checks and balances are simply described as obstruction and not seen as having any inherent value? Some do think that a government with a Parliamentary majority should be free to do whatever it wants and can get through Parliament: electoral might is right. It is certainly an attractive doctrine to those in power and those sharing that government’s aims. Whether it is wise, quite another matter.

All too easy to see such concerns as an overreaction to even the most modest proposals for change. Yes, this is a danger. No system should be immune from challenge. Some changes can be for the better, can help achieve the intended purpose of the convention or rule more easily, particularly in different circumstances. 

But beware: such arguments are often presented disingenuously by those with more interest in dismantling such checks, even as they claim to want their improvement. A certain amount of scepticism about what such changes will actually achieve – not merely what is loudly trumpeted – is always necessary when those impatient for change make such claims. Political revolutionaries, let alone self-proclaimed “disruptors”, should no more be trusted than commission-hungry salesmen selling the latest complicated financial product. The small print should always be very carefully reviewed.

One paradoxical result of Britain being on the victors’ side in WW2 is not a sensitivity to how easily civilised or democratic counties can fall prey to darker forces. Rather, it is a complacent belief that it is automatically and absolutely on the right side of the democracy vs authoritarianism argument. Illiberal, authoritarian, totalitarian movements came from Them. They were not for Us. (The irony of using a Them and Us meme, so beloved of such illiberal movements, seems lost on those agitating for Freedom, especially when praising the superior British way to those with real life experience of despotic regimes.) There is a belief in an English exceptionalism (often based on a very partial and often superficial understanding of British history: our political system, culture and civic values were better than in those countries which did not resist totalitarianism. What then could Britain have to learn? 

Well, one important lesson is that no country is automatically immune to illiberal forces. Countries change; it is unwise to assume they have a permanent “character” or that it is only the better angels of their nature which will rule. If Germany can change, so too can Britain. The factors which gave rise to illiberalism or worse in past times can occur again, even if they present themselves differently. 

If such factors exist, if similar political tactics are used as before, this does not automatically mean that tyranny and despotism are about to be unleashed on a country. But it does mean that there are warning signals that all may not be well. We should pay more attention to such signals than we do.



Almost all the front pages are about the virus

Thursday, February 27th, 2020

Is now the time to panic?

This is probably the first big test for the Johnson government. How to handle the growing concern about the virus which is sweeping many parts of the world.

So far this has been less in UK than in some other European countries particularly Italy. But we live in a world where people do travel and interact and things can happen so fast.

It is starting to impact on things like the Rugby Six Nations which are taking place at the moment. The weekend’s match between Ireland and Italy has been postponed and you can can see it soon impacting on football particularly the top Premiership clubs with European interests. Then there are the Olympic games which are due to take place in Japan later in the year and which would normally command a worldwide audience and of course the Japanese have invested huge amounts in getting ready. Could that be postponed or cancelled?

As an ageing male I’m in the demographic that appears most vulnerable.

One thing we know is that this is an area where what governments do and do not do can have a big impact which is where politics comes in.

Mike Smithson


Political cross-dressing

Monday, January 20th, 2020

One of the oddest political developments is how certain concerns are seen as the exclusive property of one side or other of the Left/Right political divide, almost regardless of the nature of the issue or the reality of a party’s record.

Green issues, for instance. The general assumption is that being concerned about these puts you on the left side of the axis. Take this quote. 

“…..consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”

Who might the author be?(*) George Monbiot? David Attenborough? Caroline Lucas, perhaps? It is certainly a sentiment with which they would agree. The belief that the selfishness or indifference of existing (and past) generations has damaged (perhaps ruined) the next generation’s prospects and the planet is one widely felt amongst many in the Green movement. It is summed up in the description of our “contemporary lifestyle” (a consumer capitalist lifestyle naturally) as “unsustainable”. Implicit in it is the belief that only state action can put matters right.  

Both assumptions have a great deal of truth in them but need a rather more critical eye than they generally get. Some of the worst environmental damage has occurred in countries where the collective was considered far more important than the  individual, where a consumer lifestyle was an unattainable dream. The Soviet Union – in its determination to industrialise and exploit its natural resources – was a perfect example. Its consequences affect Russia and surrounding countries to this day: some of the worst air pollution in the world, contamination of the earth and groundwater in Dzerzhinsk, a former chemical weapons production centre, Lake Karachay now radioactive, having being used as a dump for nuclear waste, rivers so full of chemical pollutants that they cannot freeze even in sub-zero temperatures, the loss of 90% of Lake Aral etc. Resources may have been owned and managed by the state for the People (in theory) but the interests of actual people in having clean water, clean air and not being poisoned by harmful substances dumped where they lived were, in reality, ignored. All this has incalculable, long-lasting and harmful consequences for the natural environment, current inhabitants and the unborn. Nor is there much chance of this changing, despite Communism’s disappearance. Putin thinks climate change a Western theory invented to hold back Russia’s development.

No economic model has a monopoly on selfishness and unsustainability, it seems. But too often some in the Green movement give the impression that only Western capitalism is at fault, that punishment, blame and attacking the bad guys are almost more important than finding workable solutions to put matters right. The real criticism of groups like Extinction Rebellion is that their irritatingly stupid attempts to disrupt public transport, their desire to make people feel strongly about the issue (“Emotionality is the only way you can get people to do something” as one of their co-founders has said) risk provoking an equally emotional and opposite reaction in response. If being green is seen as a desire to impose a sort of ascetic hairshirt mortification on people, rather than a genuine attempt to find workable solutions, it will likely repel those whose support is needed if effective measures are to succeed.

Still, the similarity between Putin’s views and Trump’s determination to ignore scientific evidence about climate change and environmental harm, to view it as a conspiracy against American economic interests, is striking. It is one shared by a number of right-wing / conservative governments who seem to view green issues as a pretext for an attack on capitalism, growth and individual liberty, an excuse for state control over both economy and people. Hence the description of Greens as “watermelons”: ostensibly green but really reds under the bed (or your car) itching to ban your holiday flight.

If so, this is perhaps in part because conservatives have not as seriously engaged in the debate as they should (Mrs Thatcher’s 1990 UN speech notwithstanding) some preferring ad hominem attacks on the messengers demanding action or pointing out the undoubted hypocrisies of the “Do as I say not as I do” brigade.  Time has been spent contesting the science rather than on R&D. Or they have presented the argument as one between those wanting economic growth to help the poor and those rich enough not to worry grandly telling others what to do. It is a false – if superficially attractive – choice. An unsustainable economic model or lifestyle risks short-term growth followed by bust, which rarely benefits the poor. (Cynics might wonder at the remarkably convenient focus on the poor by those wanting no change to a system which suits them very well indeed.) 

On one reading, it is very unconservative to think that only economic growth, regardless of the consequences, matters, that only financial inheritances count. Edmund Burke described society as “a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born”. This beautifully encapsulates why we should want to preserve the best of the past, both man-made and natural, why we should consider ourselves temporary guardians of our world holding it in trust for the future, why we have an obligation to sustain it so that it can be passed on in good order, why we should not be so arrogant as to think we can use it as we want or so selfish as to ignore the considerations of future generations. Our politics should reflect the “democracy of the living world” (to misquote G.K. Chesterton) and not just the people currently in it.  

Conservation – of buildings, natural habitats, plant and animal species, ways of life, traditions and activities rooted in a love and understanding of place and our dependence on nature, developing sustainable – rather than wasteful – ways of living  – should not be seen as “Green crap” to be discarded when it all becomes too politically difficult or inconvenient. Being green is not just about saving polar bears or stopping fires and floods in faraway countries. It is about, for instance: housing developments at home being intelligently designed and built with sustainable community and transport infrastructure; people living in well built energy efficient homes; sustainable farming using natural processes producing high quality food (rather than Monbiot’s latest idiotic idea to put the Googles of this world in control of providing us with artificial food); discouraging waste – and not just bad stuff like plastics but material which could be used (why, for instance, don’t we value and use the magnificent wool from Herdwick sheep here rather than importing pashminas from thousands of miles away or using foam insulation?) and much else besides. Being green involves changes in attitude (less waste, repair not throwing away), individual daily actions and collective action by individual states, acting on their own and with others. It involves making some difficult political and economic choices – taxing air travel, for instance.

The dangers of appearing to be a (possibly reluctant) latecomer to an issue which now appears to be higher up the public’s agenda than before is that you are fighting on ground which has been defined by others. The issue is seen as a cause. Intensity of belief matters more than coming up with practical solutions. Criticisms may be viewed as arising from a lack of commitment rather than from evidence-based objections. You risk having no alternative practical solutions to put forward. Your conversion to such policies may be seen as a gimmick (“Vote Blue, Go Green”), inconsistent or as good intentions to be abandoned at the slightest political pressure. (How confident can anyone be that, if the price of an FTA with the US is to reduce UK environmental standards, that price would not be paid.) 

It need not be like this. The sustainability and fairness of our economic model, what growth means, whether it is possible to develop without despoiling, how to come up with practical action on climate change and the environment – not merely talk – are key political issues and ones on which the intelligent (small “c”) conservative voice should be heard.

(*) Pope Francis.



Let’s talk about Islamophobia

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Vladimir Bukovsky died recently, in the country he called home after his 1976 expulsion from Russia. He was one of the last Russian dissidents from a time when concerns about Russia related not to its interference in Western elections or its financial links with Western leaders but about the spread of its Communist ideology, its brutal control of Eastern Europe, its appalling treatment of those who protested (incarceration as “insane” in psychiatric jails) or those who wanted to leave (Russian Jews – Anatoly Sharansky, for instance). All a very long time ago now, from a period when the Berlin Wall was standing, a structure exemplifying the brutal reality that Communist states were prisons: to try and escape meant death. It is history now, unimaginable to the generations since, even if there are some, even in the West, who still mourn its passing.

One of the many facets of the Cold War which is largely forgotten is how the West fought the war on the ideological front – help to dissidents (often by brave private individuals), pressure on the authorities to let people go, exposure of what was happening, formal pressure on the Soviets to live up to the ideals they proclaimed and the agreements they signed. The most successful of these were the 1975 Helsinki Accords, containing a chapter on human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Soviet Union signed up, little imagining that this would be used by protestors and dissidents to hold it to account, embarrass it, give hope of a better future. Charter 77 was based on it; one of its most prominent signatories, Vaclav Havel, became a symbol of resistance, writing that – even in a totalitarian state – man should try to live “as if” one were free, a liberation of the mind, a private free space. Eastern Europe seized its freedom 30 years ago now, Havel becoming President of Czechoslovakia. Charter 77 was dissolved in 1992. But its influence lives on – in Charter 08, a manifesto signed by Chinese dissidents and human rights activists in December 2008, 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A tricky word that: “Universal“. Whatever the original intentions, human rights have not been universal in practice and, signatures on treaties notwithstanding, not even accepted in theory in many countries, including China. China’s treatment of its citizens has been as brutal and murderous as the Soviet Union (at least 45 million murdered by Mao). Even after its opening up to the West and its enthusiastic embrace of capitalism (Chinese-style, along with extreme wealth and corruption), its treatment of dissidents and protestors or those who will not conform has continued to be brutal, harsh, often deadly.

And no group is suffering more than the Uighur Muslims, a people who have lived in this region for centuries and been Muslim since the 10th, as shown in this Panorama documentary. Or set out here. A million people forcibly detained in camps; children separated (perhaps permanently) from their parents; organs harvested; torture, rape, medical experiments; destruction of mosques and burial grounds. Why? For “re-education” in order to deal with people “influenced by extremism” and terrorism, according to the Chinese authorities. In reality, it is a regime of incalculable cruelty: a deliberate attempt to wipe out a religion, a language, a history, a culture, a memory. For what is a people – even if they live – if their history, their way of doing things, their culture, their beliefs, their language, their buildings, their religion – are obliterated?

Arguably it may even fall within the UN definition of genocide: “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or on part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: ……. causing serious ….. mental harm to members of the group….”. But set aside legalities: what is happening is revolting, not very different in its cruelty and effects to other acts of annihilation of groups committed by totalitarian or aggressive regimes in the 20th century.

If China succeeds in its “re-education”, an ancient Islamic people will, to all intents and purposes, disappear. If anything deserves the moniker “Islamophobia” surely this does?

How should the Western world react? Exposure of what is happening has been recent; UN reports are being written; the US may raise it with the Chinese authorities; the US Congress has passed a bill and 22 UN countries have condemned it. (More than double that number have supported China.) Will anything else be done? There is little pressure for more. So far anyway. Why? Well, some reasons suggest themselves:-

  • The Uighur are a faraway people of whom little is known. Perhaps, to misquote Regis Debray, these victims are “too Muslim to interest the Right, the wrong sort of foreign to excite the Left”.
  • The Muslim world has not spoken up for them, a striking contrast to how it behaves when some perceived offence against Muslim sensibilities occurs in Western countries. Indeed, when the UN raised the issue, some leading Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt) spoke up for China. Where is the Muslim ummah when you need it most?
  • Perhaps there is some truth in the “terrorism” charge the Chinese level at the Uighur, though no evidence of this has been provided. More likely, the Chinese have cynically used fear of Islamic terrorism as a justification, knowing that this fear is shared (not without some reason) by many countries and that this may inhibit condemnation, let alone action.
  • Chinese markets, money, business and trade matter to the West, far more than the fate of a people whose name is hard to spell. Unlike the Soviet Union, which had few economic goodies to offer the West, China’s economy matters.
  • China is ruthless enough to ignore any measures taken and take counter-measures of its own. And – unlike Soviet Russia – it will likely not sign up to anything inhibiting its freedom of manoeuvre. The Helsinki Accords were the first step in bringing Russia and the West closer. The same need does not apply to China.
  • The West appears to have lost some confidence in projecting its own values. The US has a leader unconcerned by such matters who has sought to challenge China only for the US’s economic benefit rather than out of any particular concern for Western values.

So little may be done beyond statements, reports and, maybe, some token gestures. There are plenty of other issues which the West has to consider in its relationship with China: Hong Kong, Taiwan, trade, the strength of its economy and how this will affect |Western economies, its relationships with emerging African countries, its Belt and Road initiative, use of Chinese telecommunications and so on. Realpolitik will rule the day, no matter how personally appalled Western politicians may be at what they learn. ‘Twas ever thus.

Still, one lesson to be learnt from the disappearance of Soviet Russia and its satellites 3 decades ago, is that apparently permanent and impregnable and strong polities are not necessarily as permanent and impregnable and strong as everyone had supposed. Staying silent, doing nothing for those seeking freedom in such states is noticed by them. As the Polish writer and Nobel prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz, put it to Pablo Picasso in 1956 in relation to his support for Stalin: “During the years when painting was systematically destroyed in the USSR….. you lent your name to statements glorifying Stalin’s regime….  Your weight counted in the balance, and took away hope from those in the East who wanted not to submit….. No one knows what consequences a categorical protest from you might have had…. If your support helped the terror, your indignation would also have mattered.”

So what can the West do? What should it do? What will it do?



The Tyranny of Low Expectations

Sunday, October 13th, 2019

It is generally a good idea, when facing severe criticism from an inquiry, to concede with as much good grace as possible, to keep your immediate thoughts about the idiocy of the judge to yourself and not to try and justify the behaviour which has been criticised. No good will come of it: you will look like someone paying lip service to the findings who really thinks you’ve done nothing wrong.

It is advice which the Metropolitan Police singularly failed to follow in their response to the report by Sir Richard Henriques on Operation Midland, the now notorious investigation into alleged child abuse. The day of its publication the Met’s response focused on why no senior officer had done anything wrong despite the long list of failings catalogued: 43 in total, including that, in obtaining search warrants without being fully transparent about the evidence they had, the police had broken the law. This is about as serious a failure as it is possible to have by public servants whose primary and most important duty is to uphold it. Not break it. The Met’s apology for the upset caused by the searches seemed to be quite unequal to the failure – the sort of apology you might make if you’d inadvertently interrupted someone having a bath – rather than a realisation of the very great damage done to policing and the administration of justice if those tasked with it cannot be bothered to behave lawfully.

The report by the IOPC the following day adopted the same self-justifying tone to explain why there was no basis for disciplining any of the officers involved despite its comprehensive investigation, one so comprehensive that none of the officers involved had been interviewed. What would the IOPC consider an inadequate investigation to be?

One of the critical failings was the police deciding – and publicly announcing – that allegations were true and believable before they had been investigated, as a result of an obligation to believe a victim and, indeed, to call them a victim rather than a complainant. Paragraphs 1.11-1.35 of the report on why these two practices are so seriously prejudicial to proper investigation, the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof (the foundations of our entire criminal justice system) are very well worth reading. In consequence, one of the judge’s most important recommendations was for the police not automatically to believe complainants: “If one policy decision results from this review I trust that the instruction to ‘believe’ a victim’s account will cease.”  The police seem disinclined to follow this advice. Even Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, despite being a QC, seems not to understand that belief in an allegation is not necessary to investigate it properly.

The belief that victims must be believed without question did not come from nowhere. It arose in part in response to previous police failings. In 1982 Roger Graef’s documentary series about Thames Valley Police caused a stir when the episode entitled “A Complaint of Rape” showed male policemen treating a female rape victim with harsh dismissiveness. This led to important and valuable changes in how the police investigated this most serious and sensitive of crimes. Similar changes have been made with regard to how child victims of sexual abuse are treated, both by the police and by the courts when they give evidence. All of this is welcome: old-fashioned assumptions (that women are asking for it, that children are liars) are no basis on which to investigate crimes.

Some old-fashioned attitudes still persist though: young troubled girls in care are seen as not “nice” and in effect asking to be abused by their attackers, the assumption this time being wrapped up in the mistaken and nonsensical notion that an underage child has given “consent”. At the other end, the police have veered from ignoring crimes alleged against the famous (Savile) to pursuing them with unseemly malice and a misguided focus on making media headlines (Cliff Richard).  (If there is one thing to be regretted from the decision to abandon the second half of the Leveson Inquiry is that there was no examination of the police’s relationship with the press and whether this is compatible with their policing role. It is something which needs much more scrutiny than it is, for obvious reasons, ever likely now to get.) It as if the police veer from one position to another in response to the scandal du jour without any understanding of – or firm attachment to – the long-standing principles underlying the criminal justice system

Now the police have adopted the spuriously sentimental assumption that a victim should be believed without question. To do so is fatally to confuse therapy and care with investigation. The former is laudable but not the role of the police. The latter is.

For investigators to do their job properly they need two skills above all: emotional intelligence – empathy, an ability to understand human behaviour and motivation and build a relationship with both (alleged) criminal and victim. The second is to have what Graham Greene described as the “splinter of ice in the heart”, the judgment and analysis that makes them look coolly and dispassionately at the facts, to base their opinions on what they have found and not what they would like to believe to be true, that makes them remember that they need to find and test the evidence and ensure that it is good enough to convict someone to the standard required.

As the report put it:

“Any process that imposes an artificial state of mind upon an investigator is, necessarily, a flawed process. An investigator, in any reputable system of justice, must be impartial. The imposed ‘obligation to believe’ removes that impartiality.”

If the police allow sentimental beliefs, preconceived opinions and assumptions, pressure from the media or politicians to override the judgments they need to make, they are doing a profound disservice – to the victims (who need their complaints taken seriously and investigated properly, a crucially important difference to simply being believed), to the defendants (who are entitled not to be accused publicly – or at all – on the basis of opinion unsupported by any evidence), to the public’s faith in policing, to the administration of justice itself.

What was so dismaying about the police’s response to the Henriques report was not just the rush to protect their own, the desire to explain why disciplinary action was unjustified, the belief that incompetence and negligence were not sufficient to merit any kind of action.  The approach was that the police had broken no disciplinary rules; they did not intend to cause harm and there was no evidence of criminal behaviour so that was that.  The level of incompetence and negligence on display, the failures in basic investigative tradecraft were simply to be ignored. No: what’s worse is the assumption that nothing more than this can or should be expected.

The police had passed the low bar expected of them.  43 failings in one inquiry can happen but no-one need take any responsibility.

It is a stunning failure to understand what leadership means.  Leadership means, in essence, taking responsibility for what happens in your watch – even if you are not personally to blame.  Those senior officers who were in position when this lamentable series of failures occurred were the leaders in charge.  If leadership is to mean anything, if setting an example to all those in the police service matters, if an apology is to be meaningful, if learning lessons is to be something other than a cliché to be trotted out, if integrity at the top of policing is to have substance, then those in charge of this inquiry should, in all honour, take responsibility and resign.  Not seek to evade it with self-serving justifications and remorseful cries of “Oh, if only I’d done something different.

The Home Secretary (not noted for either her empathy or integrity or, indeed, her understanding of the criminal justice system – as her latest spat with the Attorney-General suggests) has apparently asked for a further inquiry to be carried out – though since it is to be carried out by the very body which has come up with the practices roundly criticised by the Henriques report, don’t build your hopes too high. In the meanwhile, the Prime Minister has made great play of his intention to fund 20,000 more police for our streets.  Without wishing to downplay the work of ordinary policemen or, indeed the need for effective policing, with this sort of inadequate leadership and incompetence on show, it is worth asking whether this really is the best use of public money?  Maybe fixing the problems identified by Sir Richard Henriques and implementing his recommendations might come before spaffing money on more police. It can’t, after all, cost that much to remind police leaders of that well-known saying: “The buck stops here.



Jared O’Mara’s likely resignation should prompt another look at extending proxy voting in the Commons

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

The current restrictions help neither the public nor MPs

Parliament is – and is meant to be – a tough arena. MPs and ministers take critically-important decisions and need to be accountable for them. Ideas and arguments need to tested and pitted against one another. Failures (and perceived failures) will be pounced on, often ruthlessly. Unfortunate ministers and shadow ministers who make the wrong mistake at the wrong time find themselves at the centre of a political storm often out of all proportion to the event itself, and often resulting in an unjust resignation – a storm made all the more intense these days by social media and 24-hour news reporting.

As such, it was clearly a high-risk decision from Labour to nominate Jared O’Mara for a very winnable seat – and one that was only ever going to end in disaster once he didn’t receive the proper support his autism necessitated to transition into, and survive in, such an environment. Clearly, he has to take his own share of responsibility for his failings but they are not his alone.

One question that the Commons should be asking itself is what more can be done to support MPs who are suffering from mental health disorders (indeed, what more can be done to help them acknowledge that they are suffering from these disorders in the first place)? Even more than many other jobs, the incentives are to keep their heads down and get on with it.

Instead, parliament should looks to extend the scheme it introduced last year, when it voted without opposition to allow MPs who are new parents to nominate a colleague to cast proxy votes on their behalf, meaning that they can more meaningfully take maternity or paternity leave without having to worry too much about the effect that doing so would have on the government’s majority.

Some might argue that MPs occupy an unusual position that’s not comparable to normal jobs; that they are elected by their public and have not only a mandate but also a duty to represent their constituents. As such, giving their vote to a colleague abdicates that responsibility and undermines democracy.

There is a little in that argument but surely the stronger point is that parliament should ideally represent the country at large. Two very under-represented groups are women and the under-35s and making Westminster more family-friendly might address some of the structural reasons that produce those imbalances.

However, if parliament is going to consider the principle that someone who wasn’t elected to represent a given constituency can cast votes on behalf of the MP who was, why limit it just to sitting MPs? After all, much of an MP’s job is done outside the voting lobbies – receiving and responding to constituency mail; tabling questions, amendments, EDMs and so on; speaking in the Chamber; serving on Select and other Committees. These jobs still need doing just as much when the MP is on leave. Some of those roles could be filled by either the MP’s office acting on an understanding of what the member would want, and for the larger parties, many points that a given MP might make could likely be made by a colleague but that needn’t be true for smaller parties, for example.

More relevantly, given the O’Mara situation, why limit the proxy system to just parental leave? Why not introduce it for MPs on long-term sick (which also would mean that they’d be less stressed about letting constituents down by their absence)? It’s far from unknown for MPs to function at far below the normal capacity due to illness, particularly where it’s a terminal one but also when the MP might be recovering from a serious accident, illness or other medical event. In these cases, their constituents still need and deserve representation.

Some might argue that MPs in such positions should resign and let someone who can do the work take over but that ignores both a basic humanity and also practical politics. MPs are unlikely to resign where they think their party might lose the seat – especially when the numbers in parliament are poised as the currently are. Also, where the MP recovers, or expects to, it’s both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect him or her to resign.

It’s not unreasonable, however, for the voters to expect their voice to be heard in Westminster. How to square the circle? I’d suggest that it ought to be possible for an MP to nominate a substitute to act as a proxy, with full powers and for up to 12 months between elections, and with the nominated substitute subject to a confirmatory vote in the Commons. During that time, the MP on leave would be barred from acting in any formal capacity as the MP to avoid conflicts.

The limited introduction of parental leave is a good baby step in the right direction but the principle could, and should, go a lot further.

David Herdson