THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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February 2009

Was it worth it?

DSCN1302 Yesterday's Convention on Modern Liberty was, in many ways, what I expected. The surprise - and the undoubted highlight - of the day was David Davis's closing speech.

He was generously credited, by Henry Porter in introducing him, with having stimulated the whole event by resigning his parliamentary seat last year. His speech was warm, funny and sincere and dispelled my last doubts. He is clearly serious about civil liberties, though in appealing to his own party to "honour my promises", he did not sound very sure of the Conservatives' commitment.

 It was apparent all day that "liberty" was being used in two different senses. The statists of right and left were legitimately interested in the liberty to dissent from their own party line, but far more in characterising their every wish as a "human right." The rest of us (a minority, I suspect) were interested in being left alone by the state as much as possible. The politicians present - with the honourable exception of Davis - deftly confused both uses so as to appeal, dishonestly, to everyone in the room. This much was no surprise.

DSCN1300What I did not expect was that the Labourites present would be confronted with such strong, passionate arguments. Lord Goldsmith was so beleaguered that, were he not so utterly contemptible a specimen, one might have felt sorry for him. Chuka Umunna (later to be heard chanting the ridiculous party line recited by all Labourites yesterday that it was as important to protect citizens from "corporates" -with whom dealings are optional -as from the state -which has the power to compel) had to practice his poker face throughout Davis's speech. It will stand him in good stead in the House of Commons one day. The only thing that united the various strands of thinking in the room was contempt for a government that has denied "liberty" in every conceivable sense.  I am sceptical that the Convention will lead to a new dawn of liberty in Britain, but if it does full credit must be given to Messrs Blunkett, Clarke, Reid and Smith, who have clearly played the Daily Mail card far too often for most to stomach.

 Outside the Convention hall, I had the pleasure of drinks with Ian Grey, DK, Katabasis and other LPUK members, as well as with one of my "tenants" in Second Life. The plan is to hold another Convention next February, in order to set the agenda for the General Election; ensuring that candidates know they need to treat our liberties with respect. Sceptical or not, that is something I will have to support.

Philip Pullman on the nation's virtues


Still liveblogging the Convention on Modern Liberty... In a wonderful keynote address I will not try to reproduce here, Mr Pullman set out the virtues he thought the nation we might have been (and could yet be) should have. He listed, courage, wakefulness of mind, modesty and honour. No government that had such virtues, he said, could think itself strong when it was actually (as he put it) "throwing its weight around behind the bicycle sheds. No people that had them, could stand by and let it do so. There was an enthusiastic response to his final words'

We are a better people than our government believes we are. We are a better nation.

It would not be difficult.

Answering the wrong question

Continuing to liveblog the Convention on Modern Liberty, I attended the session called "Judges and politicians; who decides?" I wanted to hear an intelligent discussion about the separation of powers. In my view, that is the element of our constitution which is broken. However, it has not fractured along the line between the judiciary and the rest. The judges are doing their constitutional job (which in Britain is not very much). The part of our constitution that is not working is the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive.

In our system, Parliament is sovereign, but the wise men of our history never foresaw the day when the executive would subjugate the legislators. Sir Geoffey Bindman put his finger on it when - referring to another speaker's list of New Labour's liberty-destroying laws - he observed that the question we need to answer is "How did the Government get away with it?" The answer, surely, is that the political parties have taken control of candidate selection and eliminated all the "difficult" people who might stand up to power. Then they have taken the resulting rabble of mediocrities and whipped it mercilessly. Lord Bingham commented that Parliament is "the only watchdog" of our liberties. The watchdog, sadly, is a spoiled poodle fed and groomed by the executive.

Lord Bingham, by the way, was splendid. He spoke cogently and (by the standard of judges) quite passionately. Ex-Attorney General Lord Goldsmith contrasted very badly with him. As someone commented during lunchtime analysis at the nearby pub, it was hard to tell if he believed the nonsense he was spouting, or was just toeing the party line. I suspect he has long stopped making the distinction.

My shock at spending the morning surrounded by Guardian readers was somewhat soothed by a lunchtime drink with more libertarians than I have ever previously been able to shake a stick at. And I have DK's contribution to look forward to. If he is on form, we may hope for some apoplectic Guardianistas.

Civil liberties during a recession

Civil liberties during a recession | The price of freedom | The Economist

It's a bit hard for "my" newspaper, the Economist, (the only one I still take in print form) to speak of me and hundreds of others thus:

"A MOB of Britain’s finest eccentrics will gather in central London on February 28th"

I have never seen myself as part of a mob. Nor do I consider the views I share with most of the great thinkers of Western history eccentric. Still, if it's now eccentric to believe that there should be limits to the state's powers over our lives, I plead guilty. If it's eccentric to object to innocents being gunned down in the streets and their killers not brought to trial, then I certainly am eccentric.

I look forward to meeting my fellow-eccentrics this Saturday and to getting to know some of them better over a lunchtime pint.

Convention on Modern Liberty - February 28th, London and around Britain

Should "egging on" be a crime?

Woman who egged on partner found guilty of manslaughter | UK news |

Antonette-Richardson-and--001 I am sure it is legally correct (as the law currently stands) but is this justice? Even if this woman did "egg on" her thug of a boyfriend, is she responsible for his actions? After all, if she had "egged him on" and he had ignored her, her actions would have been no better or worse. The only factual difference between the two scenarios is in his actions, his choices. For which, of course, he should be held fully responsible.

I remain convinced that (save for such things as falsely shouting "fire" in a theatre with malicious intent) only actions, not words, should be punished. You may say that a mob boss who orders a hit is guilty despite only uttering words. But he is guilty because of the power he holds to compel obedience (or the money he offers to secure it). To equate this harpy with a mob boss is ridiculous. She could, and should, have been ignored.

The very concept of "incitement" is a flawed one. And it is a flawed concept which is in course of being rapidly and dangerously extended. Our legal system believes there are people so dumb that they will hate whole races if "incited" to do so. What tosh. They have the choice to hate or not hate. And if they hate, then they have the choice whether or not to harm the objects of their hatred. I hate Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman and David Blunkett with a veritable passion, but until I act upon it there's no crime involved.

To convict her, the jury must have believed this woman incited her mate. I am sure the jurors were right to disbelieve her story that she was "shocked" and shouting "stop." I am sure the thug's evidence that she didn't want the victim harmed was simply his attempt to save her. They lied, but the fact remains - whatever she was screaming for him to do - he could have said "no." Punish him for his actions by all means, but don't insult him by suggesting he lacked free will. The impulse to violence was his and his alone. She is a total irrelevance.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

Mrs P., Miss P. the Younger and I were at the National last night for the revival of Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn's "play for actors and orchestra" from the 70's. Theatre is now all I miss about living in England. Russia has a superb theatre culture, but my Russian isn't up to accessing it.

The piece is set in a Soviet-era mental hospital where two men with the same name - a genuine headcase accompanied by his own imaginary orchestra and a dissident - share the same cell (or "ward") as the gaoler/psychiatrist would have it. It's a fascinating time to revive this play, which dates from the dying years of the previous Labour administration - just two years before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and formed the team with President Reagan, which would bring down the USSR.

It doesn't sound like a fun night out, but it is. The subject matter could not be more serious and Stoppard does not trivialize it, but there are many light moments - mainly provided by the character with the imaginary orchestra - and by the orchestra itself, which never leaves the stage until the end. The humour makes the piece far more effective. One might reflect - as we did - that it would not be possible to write such a piece about repression if it were set in Nazi Germany, rather than in the Soviet Union. This says more about the biggest mistake in the teaching of history in Britain - the portrayal of Nazism as a unique, unrepeatable and specifically-German horror, than it does about Stoppard or the production.

One line chills more in contemporary Britain than it would have done in 1977. Under a government that is consciously trying to shape thought - to redefine what is socially and politically acceptable - one shudders to hear the subverted psychiatrist say to the dissident, "Your opinions are your symptoms"

Property groups in £3bn call on shareholders / Companies / Property - Property groups in £3bn call on shareholders.

The question to ask about this article is nothing to do with real estate. These major private companies are trying to raise a further three billion pounds from the markets because their banks may call in loans. These loans are performing (i.e. repayments are being made, interest is being paid), but the banks can choose to call them in because of a technical default. In simple terms the default consists of allowing (!) prices to fall so that the debt represents more than the agreed proportion of value.

Question: Why didn't the banks go to their shareholders when they fell into the equivalent technical default for their industry; i.e. their assets proving to be worth less than they thought so that they no longer met the regulatory requirement only to lend a certain multiple of their assets?

Answer: because the taxpayers were easier to ask.

How long can they tolerate Web 2.00?

Editorial: In praise of ... Beatrice Webb | Comment is free | The Guardian.

The editorial is truly bizarre (though, sadly, the odious Stalinist Webbs are also memorialised at the otherwise respectable London School of Economics) but the comments are wonderful. Web 2.00 is a marvel and one wonders how long the powers that be can tolerate having their tame poodles humiliated this way in public.

One also has to wonder who the Guardianistas really are, when you consider the vile nature of their heroes. Do read all the comments. They are superb.

h/t Tim Worstall