Archive for June, 2006

The myth of 62p

29 June 2006

The Queen and the rest of the Royal Family cost the taxpayer 62p per person, Buckingham Palace has revealed.

Oh, please stop telling us the Royal Family cost us ‘only’ 62p a year (even the bloody Guardian is in on the act). Why? Because it’s a mixture of lies and disingenuous bullshit.

The ?37.4m cost (given some, but not very much detail here) covers the Civil List (the Queen’s payroll), Grants-In-Aid (maintenance of royal palaces & travel) and expenditure for state visits, but does not cover security or military ceremonies (such as Brenda’s 80th birthday bash the other week). The costs of these are conveniently folded up into domestic security and military budgets; as far as I can tell there is no detailed breakdown of these costs available anywhere, but some indication is given by individual cases, such as the bungled planning of Charles & Camilla’s wedding costing local taxpayers over ?1million, that this is no small figure.

Furthermore, trying to reduce it down to a miniscule figure is over-simplistic. The division of the ?37.4m cost over the entire population of the UK would only make sense if there were some direct benefit to any sort of sizeable proportion of the population. And no, don’t cite the charity work (it’s not as if any of them run marathons; if we didn’t have a royal family charities would just find some other celebrity for fundraising and patronage) or the tourism argument (if that’s your priority, you would support opening up all the royal palaces, art collections and estates to visitors all year round, and charging them top dollar). The only direct beneficiaries are the royals themselves; even the understimate of ?37.4m, divided by the twenty or so major royals, is nearly ?2m each. “Royals cost ?2m per head” doesn’t sound as nice a headline for the Palace, though.

Even more insulting to the intelligence is the grandstanding that money the royals gouge out of me would only buy me a minute of England v. Portugal, or it’s the equivalent of a couple of pints of milk. I’m not in Germany watching England play football because I have better things to do with my money; I don’t buy milk either as I don’t like the taste. I can and have opted out of both these options, but no such chance of doing the same with the royal family.

Judging from the diverse comments on the BBC’s “Have Your Say” there appear to a good number of people who resent paying a single penny, and an equal proportion who would gladly pay many times that sum to keep the Royals going. Which surely opens it up to a neat solution: privatisation. Well, maybe not actually privatising them fully, but at the very least, decouple them from state funding altogether. You could set up a charitable foundation, and those who love the Royals enough can set up a direct debit and pay whatever they like per month to keep the royals going. You could even throw in a few gimmicks – natty wristbands (I’m thinking some sort of jewels & ermine version), “Royal Aid” gigs (I’m sure Elton and Geldof would sign up like a shot), a letter every month from a royal of your choice (“Dear Mrs. Timpkins, Thank you for the generous ?2 you donated last month; it went a long way to paying the ?11,555 it cost to fly me to St Andrew’s to hob-nob with other golfers. Yours, Prince Andrew”).

It’s a perfect solution – it would probably raise many times the revenue the royals currently receive (if only a tenth of the population paid just a quid a month, it would still raise double the “62p a year” figure and probably cover the true cost) while at the same time removing the controversy and giving us whiny republicans less ammunition to aim at the royal family. Best of all, it fits in with the shiny vision of 21st century Britain which encourages charitable sector over the state for delivering government policy. I’m surprised Citizen Dave hasn’t made it a central plank of Conservative policy already…


Fame!

27 June 2006
Fame!

After years of trying, I finally get in The Guardian, with this post. “Today on the Web”, tomorrow World Domination. Only snag being that the quote they choose sounds like I’m agreeing with Nu Labs, not disagreeing… I hope those who have visited the site for more will have found that quote needs a little more context to make it clear. Still, can’t complain too much – at least they spelt the domain name correctly.


Banged to rights

26 June 2006

David Cameron wants to replace the Human Rights Act with a “Bill of Rights”. Full speech here, though it’s summed up in a Beeb report:

The Conservatives will replace the Human Rights Act with a US-style Bill of Rights if they get into power, Tory leader David Cameron has promised. He says current legislation is inadequate and hinders the fight against crime and terrorism. He believes a British Bill of Rights would strike a better balance between rights and responsibilities.

This is a bit confusing – nowhere in the US’s Bill of Rights does it mention “responsbilities”; nor does the German Basic Law (which Cameron cites). Both are basic documents outlining the essence of particular rights, just as the European Convention on Human Rights does.

The choice of name “Bill of Rights” are clear; one of the fashionable things to do is paint the ECHR as a foreign, European document, and contrast it with the American Bill of Rights as being more closely related to our own Anglo-Saxon legal framework. This is a dangerous deception the United Kingdom was one of the original signatories to the ECHR and when it was drafted in 1950, a good number of the people drafting it were British lawyers; the document draws on many of the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and strongly acknowledges the influence of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, chiefly drafted by a Canadian, John Peters Humphrey, and promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt, the former United States First Lady.

Nor does the ECHR bind authorities’ hands as much as you’d think; in fact it’s the concise, simply-worded, absolutist language in the American Bill of Rights which has provoked more legal problems over its interpretation (and has in turn enabled President Bush to invoke the right to interpret the constitution any way he sees fit) while the ECHR carefully spells out the (many) get-outs that the authorities have (and the ones they do not have) when it comes to obeying human rights law (crime, national security, prevention of disease etc.). It is this modern document which recognises the difficulties in running a nation state and dealing with threats to security, and when human rights have to be limited or curtailed; they spell out how this should be done, and insist on due process and transparency in these manners.

What actual objection does Cameron have to the HRA? He doesn’t critique much of the actual law itself, but instead spends most of it on how organisations are frightened of breaching it, such as the example of the police not releasing “wanted” posters in case it breaches the right to privacy. This is absurd; there has never been any court case ruling that wanted posters are in breach of the HRA; it is more a case of institutional ignorance and misunderstandings than any problem with convention or act itself.

The only specific legal judgement relating to the HRA that Cameron can quote is that related to the deportation of terrorist suspects to countries where they might be tortured:

One of the most obvious ways in which our Government can help prevent terrorist outrages in Britain is to deport foreign nationals who threaten our security. It is clear that we should have the right the right to live here to those who want to do our country harm. Yet the Government is finding it increasingly difficult to do this.
[...]
The lengths to which the authorities have to go even to detain them are so great that many serious suspects are allowed to remain here at liberty. Think about the message that sends to terrorists and their supporters around the world. It is practically an invitation for terrorists and would-be terrorists to come to Britain, safe in the knowledge that whatever crime they may have committed in their home country and whatever suspicion there may be that they might be planning a terrorist attack in the UK or elsewhere they won?t be sent back to their country of origin and may not even be detained, because the process is so complicated and time-consuming for the Government.

However, terrorist acts here tend to have been performed by British nationals, not foreigners; three of the four perpetrators of the July 7th bombings were British-born and the other (Germaine Lindsey) moved here from Jamaica when he was five months old. Similarly, Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber”, was born in Bromley. Withdrawing human rights protection for foreign suspects (who despite our reservations, have not been convicted of any crime) would not have prevented such atrocities from occurring. If the authorities are so sure that foreign suspects in custody are dangerous, then they should try them – there is a raft of anti-terror laws that make even the weakest possible connection to terrorism a triable offence.

So Cameron’s cunning solution is to provide a basic British domestic rights law, much like the German Basic Law, to which the European Court on Human Rights can take as a starting point. However, this would still not revoke our obligations to the Convention on Human Rights (Cameron is not proposing to withdraw from the convention), which would ultimately take precendence over any such Bill of Rights (as it does in Germany), so all it would ultimately do would be add another layer of legal tangle.

If Cameron were serious about ensuring liberty and security and promoting British values and freedoms, he would be pushing for greater recognition of British contributions to natural rights and human rights law. He would campaign for greater understanding of the HRA in British public life, to make sure police forces and other authorities have a better understanding of their obligations and capabilities under it, to ensure that unfounded “fears” about imaginary limitations on powers are quashed. And as for the “dangerous foreign terrorist suspects” that we are supposedly under threat from, he should support the due process of law. Terrorism is a horrible crime but it is still just a crime and should be treated like any other. Our fundamental human rights are strong enough not to be redefined or repealed by a few acts of criminality, no matter how heinous. If there is enough evidence to suggest these suspects are terrorists, then they should be tried and convicted as such. Washing our hands of them when we are uncertain of their guilt is the cheap and easy way out; any leader who styles himself brave enough to stand up to terrorism should also be brave enough to live up to the values he is so vociferously keen to protect.


The ‘respect squad’

26 June 2006

BBC: National ‘respect squad’ unveiled:

A national ‘respect squad’ is being launched by John Reid to help in the battle against anti-social behaviour. Local councils, MPs and police chiefs will be able to call in the squad to help tackle cases of “yobbishness”. The squad, which will work across Wales and England, consists of 10 frontline local authority and police staff.

It sounds quite comic-book, doesn’t it? Ten souped-up coppers and bureaucrats, roaming the country, stamping out disrespect wherever they go. Why not just call it the Justice League and be done with it?

“Anti-social behaviour ruins lives and fragments communities – particularly those in some of the most deprived areas of our country. We should and will be unremitting in our efforts to drive up standards of behaviour and enforce a culture of respect, for the benefit of all.” [emphasis mine]

Reid really does skew wide of the mark here. He’s committed the fundamental error of confusing actions and behaviours with attitudes. Wielding your big respect-stick at people may well change their behaviours, but it is not going to magically change their basic attitude to their fellow man or woman. You may well be able to stop e.g. hostile groups of youths congregating around street corners through brute force, but changing their minds and attitudes is another order; I don’t think even our hardman John is able to do that, unless he’s perfected the Ludovico technique as well. It might be safer and more reassuring to walk the streets (which is a welcome thing), but if the problem is just being diverted behind closed doors, with more domestic violence, drug abuse or self-harm as a result, then society has not gained in any real way whatsoever.


Turning rights upside-down

23 June 2006

In the wake of controversy over prison sentences, the prime minister said the rights of suspects must not “outweigh” those of the “law-abiding majority”. [...] Mr Balir said: “It’s no use saying that in theory there should be no contradiction between the rights of the suspect and the rights of that law-abiding majority. In practice there is such a conflict and every day we don’t resolve it, the consequence is not abstract, it’s out there, very real, on our streets.”

“I have come to the conclusion that part of the problem in this whole area has been the absence of a proper, considered and intellectual debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world.”

Blair may have many faults as a person, but politically he is a true master of politics, and once in a while you have to hand it to the sly old dog. According to Blair, liberty, that product of centuries of struggle, revolution, war, philosophical argument and political discourse now has to be torn up again, all because the government’s own idiotic, over-rigid sentencing guidelines, rather than human rights, have produced some uncomfortable press coverage. John Locke may have said a few nice things, but he never had to deal with asylum seekers and paedos, did he?

What Blair wants to replace them with are nothing more than a total inversion of what they are regarded as, though he does not do this explicitly. In fact Blair never really enuniucates what he thinks the meaning of liberty should be in these difficult times. However it’s not too hard to discern what he thinks from the many repeated breast-beatings he has given us, about putting the rights of the victims, the “innocent”, above that of the suspect (thus implying the suspect is automatically “guilty”). This turns the meaning of rights on their head completely: they are no longer there to protect us from the abuses of the state (if you’re a liberal), or the abuses of capital (if you’re a socialist), but the abuses of other individuals. Which is a masterstroke by the wily old bastard. Other less able politicans might have sweated on trying to continually square the circle of “balancing” the “conflicting” values liberty and security. This is utter bollocks, of course, as the most liberal societies are generally also the most secure. Not sure about that? Where would you feel if you wanted to be more secure, if you had the choice – Sweden or Sudan?

Blair doesn’t fall for that one. But, alas, he does something worse – rather than argue that liberty and security are complementary concepts or that security follows from liberty, he argues liberty is defined by security, and the only form of security is that provided by the state and the police. The only liberal citizen is a secure one. The only way we can be free is to let the government protect us, and it follows that, the more we’re protected, the more we’re free. Liberty no longer becomes a matter for the individual to assert but something that is kindly bestowed upon us.

Whereas human rights are defined as being inalienable and universal, the rights to security are not and cannot be so. Short of binding the entire population in chains, no police state in the world is going to totally prevent a drunk driver mounting the pavement and mowing me down, or an arsonist torching my flat as I sleep, or a knife-wielding thug robbing me and slashing my throat. By its very nature, security is impossible to guarantee (although this does not mean we should not strive for it) and to orient your understanding of rights from that viewpoint is to totally undermine their defining qualities.

I am no soft-touch woolly liberal; I believe that many crimes, especially crimes of a violent or sexual nature, should be quite strongly punished, and punishment forms an important strand of the criminal justice system. Yet without the rights and procedures that liberal democratic societies provide* – a fair trial, presuming innocence ahead of guilt, the rights to due process, demanding there be no reasonable doubt – then punishments become devalued; in a society that denies these civil protections and seeks to bang people up without due care muddies the distinction between innocent and guilty. With fewer protections against miscarriages of justice and more innocent people jailed, the concept of criminality becomes trivialised, and punishment is no longer associated with guilt. The system will end up undermining itself and the streets will be no safer than before. For anyone who wants heinous crimes to be appropriately punished, you need to have a trustworthy system of justice as its foundation; for the system to work, you need to have rights as its bedrock. Human rights act as a basis for security, not the other way round.

* Although I am in no way saying our justice system is perfect, nor am I denying miscarriages of justice occur currently.


Shit happens

21 June 2006

Hundreds of schoolchildren caught up in an alleged World Cup ticket fraud will get to watch a game after government talks with Fifa, Downing Street said. [...] Prime Minister Tony Blair originally hinted at helping the children to get tickets for another game during a phone-in on Radio Five Live on Monday, when he said it was “something we need to work on”. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) warned it would be difficult to source enough tickets, but on Wednesday Downing Street said personal talks between sports minister Richard Caborn and Fifa president Sepp Blatter had led to a deal being struck.

Good news, everyone. If ever you decide to buy tickets for a World Cup match through an unofficial website with no visible credentials and then get totally shafted, you can be sure that cronyism and a politician desperate to improve his personal approval ratings will come to your rescue.

No mention of where the 400 spare tickets for this will come from, but presumable they were not already taken (I find it hard to believe 400 tickets would be clawed back from sponsors or local dignitaries). If, say, for England’s match against Ecuador on Sunday, 400 tickets were given gratis to German schoolchildren who’d been caught up in a ticketing scam after the personal intervention of Angela Merkel, rather than put on sale to genuine fans of England, I doubt the English press would be feeling so charitable.

This wasn’t exactly an elaborate fraud, in fact it’s the oldest trick in the book: fake company promises something they won’t deliver on. And the warning signs were there: to even the casual observer, the “Tickets For All” website (unsurprisingly down, though the Google cache is still about) looks distinctly untrustworthy. There are no official logos or references, and a quick check of the FIFA website confirms that buying from resellers was not at all recommended:

2006 FIFA World Cup? match tickets can only be purchased officially from www.FIFAworldcup.com. All the OC can do is warn people to steer well clear of any other offer. Fans obtaining tickets in this way may find themselves denied admission at the turnstiles.

The competence of Activ4, the travel agency that got duped in this case, is certainly up for question, if they were drawn in by this sham site without asking any questions. To top it off, did you see the prices they were charging? ?305 for South Korea v. Togo (tickets for which would normally cost ?100, about a quarter of that). No credentials, extortionate prices – these people were classic scalpers. As the old saying goes, you pays your money, you takes your chances. Or rather, you pays your money, then get your new mate the Prime Minister to help you out.

Perhaps I’m being harsh in this case – after all it’s schoolchildren who’ve been done over. They are the innocent victims. Won’t someone please think of the children? Well, fuck ‘em. They’re not the first people to be diddled out of their money, and they certainly won’t be the last. It would have been a valuable lesson in life – never, ever trust a tout. Instead the lesson they’ve learnt is to make a big moan to the papers and rely on cronyism to bail you out for your foolhardiness. Actually come to think of it, that’s pretty much how modern Britain works. So perhaps there was a lesson in there after all.

Update: Of course, there is one schoolboy who definitely won’t be getting a refund


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