Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

31 July 2009

Debbie Purdy: No unintended consequences from assisted suicide, please; we’re British

I’ve just lost most of the sympathy I had for Debbie Purdy, the multiple sclerosis sufferer who yesterday won a landmark ruling in the House of Lords meaning that the Director of Public Prosecutions must now clarify the basis on which people who assist chronically sick people in taking their own lives will be prosecuted under English and Welsh law.

Asked in a BBC Radio Four Today programme interview this morning whether she thought a change in the law ‘in Britain’ in favour of assisted suicide in cases such as hers would lead to situations where elderly and sick people are bullied into taking their own lives in order not to be a burden on others, or where there is a financial interest on the part of those helping them to die, Ms Purdy dismissed this possibility out of hand by saying – and I paraphrase – that she didn’t think ‘British people’ today would behave in such a manner.

Oh, wake up, Ms Purdy! Of course, people will do such things if they think they can get away with it. That’s just human nature, and the ‘British’ are no better, morally, than anyone else. While I have sympathy for people suffering from chronic or terminal diseases who can’t think of any way they can die with dignity other than taking their own lives, this casual dismissal of the unintended consequences that will surely flow from liberalising the law on assisted suicide exemplifies the selfishness and moral self-righteousness of those who argue for the right for what used to be known as euthanasia: ‘our despair and right to get other people to kill us is morally more important than the unfortunate consequence that others will take their lives or be killed when they didn’t really want to, or when other options for their care could otherwise have been found’.

On top of which, Ms Purdy and the Radio Four interviewer talked continually of the legal situation in ‘Britain’ and didn’t once mention that the change in the law that might follow from yesterday’s ruling would affect England and Wales only, not ‘Britain’. The phrase ‘this country’ also passed the lips of both Ms Purdy and the interviewer to further obfuscate which country they were talking about. I suppose whether the change in the law relates to England and Wales only or Britain as a whole doesn’t affect the ethical issue; but when Ms Purdy appealed to the decency of ‘British’ people as part of her bland dismissal of the claim that people will take advantage of legalised assisted suicide to accelerate the demise of those who wish to die naturally, then I’m afraid she lost me completely. If the woman wants to change the law, then at least she could have the decency to know which country’s law she is changing.

No doubt, though, if this legal change does pass through Parliament – which Ms Purdy suggested she would like to happen – then Scottish and Northern Irish MPs will help vote it through even though none of their sick and elderly constituents will meet an untimely death as a consequence. Whereas, of course, it’s up to MSPs to change the law in Scotland; and, indeed, the MSP Margo MacDonald has been proposing a similar change there. But at least, if assisted suicide is legalised in Scotland, it will be Scottish elected representatives only who are responsible.

But then again, sick and dying English and Welsh patients are British, really, aren’t we? We’re decent people and won’t want to be a burden on our relatively underfunded NHS, compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland, that is; or on our families that might otherwise have to pay for a protracted period of social care, unlike in Scotland where it’s free. So my advice is: do the decent thing; lie back, take the lethal injection and think of the Empire.

10 April 2009

England Versus Britain: Liberal Christianity Versus Fundamentalist Liberalism

I’ve followed the reaction to the Archbishop of York John Sentamu’s recent sermon on Englishness with great interest. On the whole, the response from the English-nationalist community has been highly positive. This is understandable, as Sentamu’s words add up to a celebration of Englishness, which – he argued – should in fact be formally celebrated by making St. George’s Day a national holiday:

“Let us recognise collectively the enormous treasure that sits in our cultural and spiritual vaults. Let’s draw upon the riches of our heritage and find a sense of purpose for those who are thrashing around for meaning and settling for second best. Let us not forego our appreciation of an English identity for fear of upset or offence to those who claim such an identity has no place in a multi-cultural society. Englishness is not diminished by newcomers who each bring with them a new strand to England’s fabric, rather Englishness is emboldened to grow anew. The truth is that an all embracing England, confident and hopeful in its own identity, is something to celebrate. Let us acknowledge and enjoy what we are.”

This makes such a refreshing change from the continuous diet of Britishness that we are incessantly fed by the politicians and the media that Sentamu’s speech is itself something one feels like celebrating. As he himself says, “Englishness is back on the agenda”. Amen to that!

In view of this, it feels somewhat churlish on my part to point out that the Archbishop himself appears at times to have a weak grasp of the distinction between Englishness (and England) and Britishness (and Britain). This is a point I made in a comment to a posting on Sentamu’s sermon in the Cranmer blog, which I reproduce here:

“Archbishop Sentamu does appear to be confused about the distinction between England / Englishness and Britain / Britishness, slipping seamlessly between one and the other in this sermon. For instance, at the very start of his disquisition on the ‘realities of Englishness’, under the heading ‘England’s Debt to Christianity’, the Archbishop writes: ‘Historically, Christianity has been at the heart of the history of this nation. British history, customs and ethos have been gradually shaped by the Christian faith’. Which is it, Archbishop: England or Britain? And which is ‘the nation’?

“And again, under the heading ‘A Loss of Vision’, Sentamu writes: ‘a more serious development over the past century has been a loss of vision for the English people. Central to that loss of vision has been the loss of the British Empire, wherein England played a defining role. . . . As the vision for Britain became more introspective, I believe the United Kingdom became more self-absorbed’. Again, which is it: England, Britain or the United Kingdom?

“This uncertainty somewhat undermines the important point the Archbishop makes in this section, which is something I very much agree with: ‘there has perhaps never been a better time to re-state this question as to how England might re-discover a noble vision for the future? From my own standpoint I believe that it is vital that England must utilize the challenges posed by the current economic turmoil and in restating the questions posed by Bishop Montefiore, England must recover a sense of who she is and what she is’.

“In restating those questions, England must ask them from the standpoint of England, not Britain. Indeed, the ambiguous interdependency between that nation and that state respectively is very much present in Hugh Montefiore’s sermon to which Archbishop Sentamu refers: ‘I sometimes fear that the people of this great country, having shed an Empire, have also lost a noble vision for their future. How can we rediscover our self-confidence and self-esteem as a nation?’ What is ‘this great country’ and which is ‘a nation’: England or Britain?

“This is not mere semantics but goes to the heart of the question about whether we can rediscover a sense of national identity (‘England must recover a sense of who she is and what she is’) and purpose in the post-imperial age. This is especially critical, as Sentamu argues that we need to draw inspiration from that very imperial past to redefine our mission (including Christian mission) and values for the present and future. But can we succeed in defining and celebrating a distinctive Englishness and vision for England if we do not disentangle the core identity of England from that of Britain, as John Sentamu appears not to be able to do? As he writes: ‘Some English people don’t like to say anything about their heritage, for fear of upsetting newcomers. My question to them is simple: Why do you think we came here? There is something very attractive about the United Kingdom. That is why people stay! As a boy in Uganda, I was taught by British missionaries. Just as foreigners brought the Christian Faith to England and the rest of the UK, so British foreigners handed on the baton to me, my family and my forebears. . . . All I am doing now is to remind the English of what they taught me’. All very fine stuff. But who in fact taught him his faith: the English or the British? And which country is it that foreigners come to and like so much: England or the UK?

“As I say, the distinction is far from semantic, as we are living in a political and cultural climate in which England and Englishness are very much being suppressed in favour of Britain and Britishness, and a re-telling of the whole narrative of English history, values and identity is being made as that of Britain. Without defining and affirming an Englishness distinct from Britishness, there will be no English future to build for, the hope for which Archbishop Sentamu expresses at the end of his sermon. Just as he juxtaposes the traditional British patriotic hymn of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with the English hymn of ‘Jerusalem’.

“So perhaps I was right in my previous comment, after all, to say that the CofE needs to work out whether it is primarily English or British in order to be in a position truly to speak for England and express an authentic vision for England – as England”.

Thinking about this further, I wonder if this overlapping of England and Britain in Sentamu’s speech is not so much a case of confusion as a reaffirmation of the very anglo-centricity of traditional Britishness. In my last post in this blog, I described the way in which Gordon Brown’s Britishness agenda draws on English people’s traditional non-differentiation between Englishness and Britishness to enlist their identification with a new Britishness that makes no reference whatsoever to Englishness or England – literally: the words ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’ are erased from the official lexicon, and are replaced by concepts of Britishness and Britain that take over all the characteristics of their English precursors, including that of the sovereign national identity at the heart of the UK state.

This attempt to appropriate English nationhood and sovereignty to a British state that has hitherto been primarily an instrument of English power has brought about a profound schism in the English-British identity, with many English people coming to reject Britain and Britishness altogether because they no longer seem to represent a vehicle and expression of English-national pride and identity. These latter are what John Sentamu has affirmed in his sermon: but not as being ineradicably at odds with Britain and Britishness but as constituting and epitomising all that is best about Britain – in both its imperial past and its multicultural present.

As this restatement of the positive characteristics of Englishness is a reinstatement of Englishness at the heart of Britishness, it is not surprising that the Archbishop’s list of English values closely resembles similar lists of British values that are regularly trooped out: “fraternity, law, liberty, landscape, language, magnanimity, monarchy, a thirst for knowledge, and a reverence for titles and status. But along with these I would also add, an ability to cope and not make a fuss”. Lists such as these are of course highly disputable, both as typifying the English and in relation to whether they are more aptly extended to all the people of Britain, not just the English. However, the point I would emphasise is that even when adduced as a set of British values, qualities such as these are by default ascribed to the English, as it is the people of England that are intended to embody those values most ‘quintessentially’.

Another question, raised by the Archbishop himself, is whether these things are actual characteristics of English / British people or virtues, as the lists often include qualities with a moral tenor such as fairness, tolerance, honesty and respect for the rule of law. And again, are these ‘virtues’ that the English (and / or British) exemplify to a high degree in some way, or are they mainly characteristics that we hold up as ideals to which we aspire but which we very often fall short of in practice? The same could be said of some of the other qualities commonly termed ‘British values’, which are in reality political ideals or civic virtues, such as: liberty (ironically, a favourite of the oh-so un-libertarian Gordon Brown), equality, fraternity (in the Archbishop’s list), democracy, justice, and hard work. Are these typical characteristics of English / British society or do they merely reflect our aspirations for the way we would like Britain to be – some might say, all the more held up as an ideal the more they are in reality absent, as in the case of liberty alluded to above, or hard work, which Gordon Brown hammers on about increasingly as unemployment rises?

Come what may, whether we hold virtues or values to be more important or revealing about us goes to the heart of what we think should be the fundamental principles by which we live our lives as a nation – however much we do in reality live our lives by those principles. And there’s no doubt that Archbishop Sentamu’s intervention is part of an attempt to reaffirm Christian faith and traditions as the prime mover that has shaped the ‘moral character’ of England, and to reconnect English people to Christianity in the present:

“Whilst it has been suggested by some that virtues such as fair play, kindness and decency are part of any consideration of what it means to be English, the question as to where these virtues came from is usually overlooked. It is my understanding that such virtues and those associated with them, which form the fabric of our society have been weaved through a period of more than 1,500 years of the Christian faith operating in and upon this society.”

Interviewed for the second part of Matthew D’Ancona’s two-part Radio Four series on Britishness (which is basically a plug for a book on the same theme D’Ancona has co-written with Gordon Brown – play-back available only till Tuesday 14 April), the soon-to-retire Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy-O’Connor also emphasised the precedence of Christian virtues over secular values. This was, O’Connor explained, because virtues were unchanging principles that give order and meaning to people’s lives, while secular values are continually evolving in line with changes in social mores and material circumstances. A solid core of belief in timeless virtues thus provides a sense of rootedness in a world that can otherwise appear alarmingly mutable and unstable. From a Catholic perspective, these universal principles by definition transcend the individual nations that attempt to live by those principles. All the same, one implication of Cardinal O’Connor’s words was clearly that the principles of Christian faith make at once a higher and deeper claim to our allegiance than the merely civic and secular values that Brown and D’Ancona identify as the founding principles for a multi-cultural 21st-century Britain.

What was even more thought-provoking was D’Ancona’s interview with the leading cleric in the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This was firstly because of what it left out. On the preceding Sunday, on the Radio Four programme of the same name, they played an excerpt of D’Ancona’s interview with Williams where the author was trying to get the Archbishop to talk of the ways in which Christianity had helped mould Britain’s ‘national identity’. Williams deftly side-stepped this trap by agreeing that Christianity had been formative of “England’s national identity, let alone that of Britain” right from the very start of England’s history as a nation, when it helped to bring together the different Anglo-Saxon tribes into a unified kingdom – a history which Archbishop Sentamu also makes reference to in his sermon. So Rowan Williams refused to allow the Church of England to be used to support D’Ancona’s Britishness agenda by confirming a narrative whereby England’s Christian history had been one of many strands contributing to the development of something such a British national identity and set of values today – which would in fact confine the Church and England to the status of historical entities, rather than as continuing communities with beliefs and traditions distinct from those of modern secular Britain.

As I say, D’Ancona’s interview on the Britishness programme itself was revealing through its omissions, one of which was this very excerpt, which was conveniently edited out of the final broadcast. The part of the interview that D’Ancona chose to focus on in the programme was where Williams was making out a case in favour of the Church of England retaining its established status. Williams argued that this actually helps to anchor a multi-cultural society as it provides a solid foundation of core values, mutual respect, and a model for interaction between all the different ethnic groups – whether or not they fully subscribe to the religious basis for those principles. Indeed, Williams maintained, it was his experience that those of other faiths and of none often told him they valued the established status of the Church of England for this very reason. Clearly, those coming to England – especially those with a strong religious background – value the fact that there is a religious voice and an ‘official’ faith at the heart of the British Establishment. This corresponds to the experience of their own cultures, where there is often a formal, state religion, or certainly a majority religion; and it also constitutes something like a formal set of fundamental English beliefs that enables them to better understand how some of their own cultural and religious practices might conflict with English traditions, and to negotiate a path of integration into British society based on respect for its most deep-rooted norms and values.

Conversely, the absence of a strong religious centre to English and British life can engender a lack of respect and even fear towards our society on the part of migrants, which can lead migrant communities to retreat into their own ghettoes, and may in extremis even contribute towards fanatical jihadist ideas that Islam should become the dominant faith of Britain. Similarly, a lack of a grounding in true Christian principles – including loving the stranger and welcoming those of other faiths from a position of security in one’s own faith – can increase misunderstanding and hostility to those of other faith traditions, obscuring the fact that there is often more in common between people of different faiths (at least with respect to ethics and social values) than between those of any faith and those of none. This touches upon what Archbishop Sentamu means when he writes about ‘magnanimity’ as both an English characteristic and a Christian virtue. This goes beyond the mere tolerance that Gordon Brown and the Britologists spout on about, a quality which can imply division and lack of engagement with those of different backgrounds that one is tolerating. By contrast, magnanimity implies an openness towards the stranger, and a proactive effort to engage with them, to share with them what one has and is, and together to create community.

Matthew D’Ancona insidiously characterised Rowan Williams’s thoughtful reflection on the value of an established faith as ‘clever’ – implying that it was a sort of casuistic attempt to make out that the Church of England could provide a more pluralist, tolerant and even liberal basis for a modern multi-cultural society than the form of secular liberalism that D’Ancona clearly wishes to set up as the fundamental credo of a 21st-century British ‘nation’. This was clear from the end of the Britishness programme – immediately after the edited interview with Rowan Williams – where D’Ancona himself goes into sermon mode, arguing that it should be possible for secular British society to agree a set of fundamental moral and philosophical principles (“lines in the sand”, as he put it) that are non-negotiable. These would constitute a similar set of core British values to that which has hitherto been provided by the Church of England (as Rowan Williams would argue) and fulfilling the same sort of function – providing an ‘official’ statement along the lines of: ‘this is Britain; this is who we are and what we believe’ – enabling those of other backgrounds who settle here to understand and respect British society, and adapt to it.

The difference is that these new values are profoundly secular and liberal; and D’Ancona’s new British nation-state would undoubtedly be secular in its constitution – not an established religion in sight. Indeed, I would characterise these values as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘absolutist’ liberalism. For instance, two examples of non-negotiable values that D’Ancona skirted past in his final flourish were gay rights and women’s rights. No objection whatsoever on principle. But the anti-religious thrust of D’Ancona’s argument suggested that what we would end up with is more of what we have already endured under New Labour: certain so-called gay and women’s rights overriding and even obliterating the rights of religious groups to believe and do otherwise, and to preach and teach against certain practices – at least, from a government-sponsored pulpit. The ‘right’ of gay couples to adopt children taking precedence over the conscientious objection of Christian adoption agencies, forcing them to close; the ‘right’ of Lesbian couples to both use IVF to conceive children and be registered on the birth certificate as the genetic parents (even if neither of them actually are), obliterating the right of the child to a father; the ‘right’ of women to abortion, to the extent that – and this is quite conceivable – medical staff who refuse to support or carry out abortions could be prosecuted or struck off.

These and more are the kind of ‘British values’ that D’Ancona and Brown would have as the underpinning of their cherished ideal of a ‘Nation of Britain’ – indeed, Brown voted for them all, plus hybrid human-animal embryos, in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, where he came very close to forcing Christian conscientious objectors among the Labour ranks to support the government or else lose the whip. This is ‘tolerance’ of extremes of Brave New World social, and indeed genetic, engineering pushed to such a degree that it tips over into intolerance towards those who dare to disagree out of adherence to more traditional beliefs and models of society. This is liberal fundamentalism, which relativises any claims to absolute truth, and any statements of fundamental right and wrong, other than its own.

And this is a Britishness finally stripped of any fundamental affiliation to the Christian faith and tradition. The English Christian faith and tradition, that is. To tear the English heart out of Britishness, you have to de-christianise Britain; and to de-christianise Britain, you have strip out its English centre. And that is because England is a Christian nation. The large majority of English people may no longer attend church services on a regular basis; but English mores and the English character have been moulded by the faith over centuries. And an England in touch with its roots is an England that recognises how much it owes to the Christian tradition.

Perhaps, then, the reawakening of a distinctly English national consciousness will also lead to a re-evaluation, indeed a renewed valuing, of England’s Christian character and heritage – its virtues even, and its vices. If so, the Church of England may feel increasingly empowered to speak out on behalf of England and in England’s name, and so provide the moral leadership that is necessary in the fight to resist both the total secularisation and the ‘Britishisation’ of our proud and Christian land.

9 February 2008

Sharia, English Law and British Values

It’s open season on Islamophobia again. All it takes is for a batty old archbishop to make a few ill-considered remarks about incorporating some aspects of Islamic law, or sharia, into English law [sic], and out troop all the old stereotypes and prejudices about Islam: floggings, stonings, mutilations, beheadings, religious extremism and absolutism, oppression of women, the imposition of the veil, and the ambition of (some) Muslims to impose sharia on Britain and the West in general. What a load of disgraceful hysteria that is a shame on our country.

Actually, ‘ill-considered’ is virtually the opposite of what Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words in a lecture on 7 February were, other than in the political sense: he should perhaps have realised the furious zeal that would be unleashed to stuff the genie he’d released back into its rightful confinement. The fact that the archbishop was saying something worthwhile is almost ‘proved’ negatively by the calibre of his opponents. First of all, GB [Gordon Brown], whose spokesman stated that the prime minister “believes that British laws should be based on British values”. What on earth is that supposed to mean? There is no such thing as ‘British law’ other than as an aggregate of English law (the legal system for England and Wales) and Scottish law. And are (should) the laws of England, Wales and Scotland (be) ‘based on’ British values, whatever they may be? And is a statement such as this even a refutation of Rowan Williams’s argument, in two ways: 1) no one is denying – least of all, Rowan Williams – that the laws of Britain should be consistent with the most fundamental principles of British civilisation and society; but the archbishop isn’t advocating incorporating certain elements of sharia directly into ‘British law’ and British statutes, so the conflict in this sense doesn’t arise; 2) many of the principles of sharia law in the areas Rowan Williams is talking about (such as marital disputes and family law) are already consistent with British law and values; and, indeed, on another definition, if Muslims as Muslims are to be accepted as British, does that not mean that their values must be taken into consideration in any determination of what ‘British values’ might mean?

And then there’s Trevor Philips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (he of the ironically ‘pro-Muslim’ revisionist British history that overrides, indeed overwrites, the separate ‘native’ histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). His take on it was that “the suggestion that a British court should treat people differently according to their faith – whether that’s being Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, is absolutely divisive, and I think, really rather dangerous”. Well, this is not what Dr Williams was suggesting, either. He wasn’t advocating that ‘British courts’ (sorry, slip of the tongue, English (or Welsh) or Scottish courts) should treat people differently according to their religion; he was saying that Muslims should perhaps have the right, under English law, to seek resolution and redress in certain types of cases (essentially, domestic and financial), if they wish, through sharia-type procedures, all under the auspices and control of the English legal system. What is divisive about that? It’s not one law for Muslims and another for all the other British people. It’s an integration of limited aspects of sharia into English law, so as to guarantee that Muslims could resolve certain issues legally in accordance with their conscience and customs, while enjoying the same legal protections and rights as any other British citizen.

I’d call that integrationist and inclusive, not divisive. In fact, it’s people who are rigorously opposed to allowing for any kind of role for sharia or other religiously based laws and jurisdiction in British civic society who are divisive. As a Muslim, so the argument goes (and Blair in his time and Jack Straw have argued along these lines), you can reconcile your joint identities as British and Muslim only if you accept the ultimate supremacy of British law, indeed the rule of law, over all prescriptions and rules deriving from your own religious tradition that might place you in conflict with British laws and fundamental values; and sharia is seen as the example par excellence of such a code that is seen as conflicting with and alien to inherently British principles and values. You either accept British values, thereby subordinating your separate Muslim identity to a shared British identity founded on those values, or you don’t – in which case, in principle, you are forfeiting your right to be called a British citizen.

I think Rowan Williams was also attacking this narrow identification of British citizenship with uniform and monopolistic acceptance of the abstract and absolutist claim of the law to govern the lives of all citizens equally, without any right for particular groups of citizens to freely choose to regulate certain aspects of their lives differently, in accordance with particular customs or beliefs. As the archbishop stated: “The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural . . . this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities”.

This could almost be a description of the way in which calls for a distinct English nation and legislative body (parliament) are suppressed by the British state and value system that certain proponents such as GB (as I’ve argued elsewhere) wish to transform into a unitary British nation where the state is viewed as representing the sovereignty (absolute authority) of the British people: equality before a unitary ‘British’ law. Meanwhile, public expressions of Englishness are denied any official sanction; indeed, the state itself suppresses any reference to England as a nation within, but distinct from, Britain even when the sphere of its own activities is limited to England. And more fundamentally, the terms in which any officially accepted discussion regarding ‘shared values’ (what Dr Williams calls “shared goods and priorities”) is allowed to take place are defined exclusively as British; while English values and culture are marginalised and dismissed as merely the whims of private individuals. You can define yourself as English, just as you can be fundamentally Muslim, only in the privacy of your heart and your home; but officially, you’re British – or else, you are free to leave.

And this is why it’s particularly pernicious that the row that erupted over Rowan Williams’ lecture should have referred to the idea of accommodating Sharia within British law. No, Dr Williams’ lecture is entitled Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England. It’s an English matter, not British. English law already allows certain types of dispute to be resolved in civil, rather than legal, procedures under the terms of Orthodox Jewish law or, indeed, sharia; and the outcomes of such procedures are legally binding. What the archbishop is proposing is no more than a formalisation and extension of such arrangements so as to ensure legal oversight and improved guarantees that the rights and freedoms enshrined in English law are not overridden by the rulings of any given sharia court, which can vary according to the ethnic background and school of Islamic belief of each Muslim community.

Such a deviation from a uniform, legalistic Britishness on the part of English courts clearly cannot be tolerated. There is, after all, only one British law, nation and set of values for all. Well, there are not; but there will be if GB gets his way. Englishman beware: it may be Islamic law they’re excluding from Britain now, but it’ll be English law next. Perhaps that’s another trick that a written British constitution will pull off: the creation of a unified British law, superseding an English legal system based on tradition, precedent and the freedom to be different.

6 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 5): No change to phone taps as evidence in Scotland

It probably goes without saying – correction, it has gone without being said – that the recommendations of the Chilcot Report, released today, that evidence derived from phone taps could be admissible in evidence in criminal trials (for instance, against suspected terrorists) do not apply to Scotland – only England and Wales. But I haven’t heard that being said on the news on BBC Radios Four and Five, or BBC One on the telly. Nor is it stated in the report that currently appears on the BBC News website.

But it’s there in black and white in the report itself. The problem is that, while the interception of communications is a reserved matter (i.e. still the responsibility of the Westminster government), procedure in courts of law and policing in Scotland are the responsibility of the devolved government in that country. So the Chilcot Report recommends that some form of Public Interest Immunity be introduced in Scotland, similar to that in England: meaning, as I understand it, that details concerning the methods used to obtain intercept evidence, and the full details of that evidence, could be withheld from open session of court in order to keep those intercept methods secret in the public interest. There are currently proposals of precisely this nature before the Scottish Parliament, which may – or may not – result in PII legislation in Scotland. However, as the Chilcot Report states on pp. 21-22: “We therefore recommend no change to the current legal regime for interception in Scotland until new legislation is in place and its potential impact has been assessed”.

So something that Gordon Brown insisted should be introduced, if it is in the end, in the interests strictly of national security (meaning the security of the UK as a whole), may come into law in England and Wales but not in Scotland. Does this matter? Well, surely where national security is at issue, there should not be one law for England and Wales, and one for Scotland – if we are one nation, that is. Similarly, where civil liberties are at issue. This is the other side to the coin of phone-tap evidence that didn’t seem to weigh much in the balance in the PM’s speech in the House of Commons this lunchtime. So depending on how you think the admittance of phone-tap data as evidence in criminal proceedings may either advance or impede the ‘war on terror’, or may impinge or not on civil liberties – it’s quite likely that some of the residents of the UK, terrorists and law-abiding citizens, are going to get off Scot free.

Addendum, 7 February: later in the day, the reports did indicate clearly from the outset that the proposed change to the rules affected England and Wales only. However, this was stated without any further explanation or comment; for instance, what were the ‘national security’ implications for Scotland going its own way on this issue, if that’s what they eventually decided to do? Was it not so important a matter that pressure should be brought to bear on Holyrood to pass the necessary Scottish legislation, to ensure that all UK citizens enjoyed the same degree of protection against the terror threat? Or if it wasn’t important enough to push through the measure in Scotland, was it really that important or necessary in England and Wales? Is it perhaps just another case, like that of the superfluous extension of detention without trial for terror suspects to 42 days, where GB [Gordon Brown] wants to be seen to be tough and decisive, but the measures involved are quite ineffective? And then the reporting as a whole still presented the debate as if it related to the whole of the UK, which it quite manifestly didn’t, as the Scottish dimension was not touched upon at all.

24 October 2007

We wouldn’t need immigration if we banned abortion

Discuss.

Now there’s a statement to get up the hackles of the PC crew! In a single assertion, managing to challenge and spuriously link two cherished dogmas of the liberal: that immigration is good for Britain and should be encouraged; and that abortion is a human right that should remain enshrined in law.

But it was intriguing that on two consecutive days this week, some striking demographic statistics were released. Yesterday, came the Office of National Statistics (ONS) forecasts about UK population growth to 2031, which, among other things, predicted that there would be 4.4 million more people living here by 2016. This was made up of a natural increase of 2.3 million (i.e. the difference between the number of births and deaths) and 2.1 million from net inward migration (the difference between the number of persons immigrating and emigrating).

Then today, as the 40th anniversary of the bill that legalised abortion approached, it was reported that the number of abortions in the UK currently stands at around 200,000 per year. Well, the maths are quite easy: if all those unborn children were allowed to go to term, then there’d be an additional natural increase in the population that would be almost as big as that from net inward migration. Consequently, you could argue that there would no longer be any ‘need’ for immigration: the population could naturally grow to the same extent as it is expected to do with the high level of forecast immigration, which the government claims is necessary to support Britain’s economic growth.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. For a start, around 0.8 million of the total of 2.3 million extra inhabitants resulting from natural population growth are expected to in fact be the children of immigrants. So if you added the remaining 1.5 million to the 1.8 million unborn babies that could be saved from abortions over the nine years to 2016, you’d have an increase of a ‘mere’ 3.3 million UK inhabitants! Probably enough, though, wouldn’t you think? But there wouldn’t be enough new people of working age, which is the government’s main argument in favour of immigration. So maybe we would still have to accept a limited amount of immigration (er, shall we say up to a million over nine years?). Then, through a combination of immigration and bringing into work the great unwashed mass of the unemployed (for instance, by actually training them to do the skilled work that is required and by paying them decent wages to do the unpleasant, menial jobs that are necessary – thereby showing that we value such work), maybe we could just about muddle through, if that’s not too English a phrase.

But, of course, I’m being hypothetical and polemical: there’s no way that abortion will be abolished in the foreseeable future. So it looks like we’ll just have to accept the immigration, then! The point I’m making is that the real rate of natural regeneration is much higher than people generally realise; it’s only the existence of such a large number of abortions that artificially keeps it down. If these lost lives came to be seen as a ‘natural resource’ that the country actually needed for its future economic growth and prosperity, then much of the government’s case in favour of mass immigration would disintegrate. And moreover, these 1.8 million lives that would otherwise be culled through abortion would all be ‘British’, or most of them anyway. Instead, the government seems to prefer the idea of giving immigrants and their children the chance of a prosperous life in Britain that the abortion law denies to so many Britons. It seems that the government’s dereliction of its duties to serve the needs of the British population first and foremost extends to the unborn as well as those fortunate enough to have been born.

Looking at this from the immigration-friendly perspective of the government, there is what could be called a demographic imperative to keep the present abortion laws in place. Given that the government wants to encourage high levels of immigration for a combination of ideological and economic reasons (which are disputable – see my previous post on this subject), then it would simply be unworkable to allow an extra 200,000 British babies per year to escape the axe of abortion. That would mean the official (as opposed to the even higher unofficial) population of the UK would grow by 6.2 million by 2016. Nobody wants that much population growth. They might be prepared to buy 4.4 million, on the basis that the net contribution of immigration to that total was ‘merely’ around 2.9 million, which could then be sold to the public as having been necessary to fuel the country’s economic growth. So if population growth is going to be kept down to such ‘acceptable’, ‘manageable’ levels, we’ll just have to keep the abortion laws in place, won’t we? And let’s just forget that, in the absence of abortion, natural regeneration of the population could actually be sufficient to meet our long-term needs, so that people can be persuaded that a high level of immigration is necessary.

In short, whereas at an individual level, abortion is often (but by no means always) misused as a form of after-the-event birth control for the personal convenience of the parents concerned, at a collective level, abortion is misused by the government as a convenient form of population control: offsetting the population rise through immigration which its own policies promote.

6 July 2007

Control Orders: A Better Alternative

The trouble with Control Orders – the UK security measure whereby terror suspects against whom a conventional legal case cannot easily be built can effectively be placed under indefinite house arrest – is that in practice they embody a presumption of guilt. This is in contrast to the long-established British legal convention that a suspect is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Yesterday, the government launched an appeal to the House of Lords against a legal ruling previously obtained by six Iraqi Control-Order detainees that their detention violated their rights to liberty and a fair trial.

As in all such cases, it is important to try to strike a balance between the legal and human rights of suspects, and the right of the public to be protected against potential murderers. But the de facto presumption of guilt is clear: if the police who press for a particular suspect to be controlled did not think that the evidence they had gathered strongly suggested the person in question was a terrorist, then there would be no point in the measures – other than the exercise of political coercion to try to intimidate radical groups and individuals into behaving in a more moderate manner. But while a sense of injustice persists about the way in which suspects’ guilt is accepted by the judges who ratify Control Orders, so the suspicion that these measures are just such a coercive political measure will linger, to the detriment of the so-called battle to win hearts and minds.

There is an alternative that would bring more fairness back into the legal process surrounding suspects of this sort. If indeed there is a presumption of guilt, why not formalise this and say that it is then down to the suspect to demonstrate his or her innocence through a fair, open judicial proceeding? The suspect would have the right to know on what basis their guilt was being presumed and could appoint a legal team to build a case in their defence. The issue could then be decided in an adversarial manner just like any other case (albeit that, for security purposes, this might not involve a jury). The difference from the assumption of innocence would be that if, on the balance of evidence, it was not conclusive whether the individual either was or was not a terrorist, the Control Order or other restrictive measure would remain in place – subject to fairly regular (e.g. six-monthly or annual) review. If the verdict was guilty, however, this would enable the suspect to be imprisoned, thus doing away with the anomalous legal no-man’s land of the current system. And obviously, a not-guilty verdict would allow the individuals affected to regain their rightful liberty.

Clearly, there are potential pitfalls behind this idea, and legal safeguards protecting both the rights of the individual and the prerogatives of the state would need to be put in place. The main issue would be whether society would be able to accept a derogation from the presumption of innocence and would be able to overcome concerns that this would lead to further erosion of this basic right. But under the present set up, the presumption of innocence is in fact not working either to protect the rights of suspects or the state’s duty of protection. It’s because the formal process of law demands that the accused be presumed innocent until proven guilty that the case against them can’t be taken to court and the suspects are left in a legal limbo. And because a democratic state can’t arbitrarily impose imprisonment without trial, it has had to come up with the Control Order compromise; but this is not secure, as recent evasions have demonstrated – so society is not being protected.

The limited admission of a formal presumption of guilt that I am advocating would recognise the realities of fighting terrorism, which are that absolute guilt is sometimes impossible to prove beyond all reasonable doubt and that therefore guilt is having to be presumed in certain cases. And, at the same time, this would allow suspects to be given a fair hearing and chance to exonerate themselves if indeed they are without blame. And this would also defuse the charge made in some quarters that Control Orders are politically motivated and are placing the legal system at the service of an oppressive, anti-Islamic state.

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