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

It gets better

MPs' expenses: parliamentary privilege could hamper police inquiries - Telegraph.

If they use (spurious) claims of parliamentary privilege to interfere with police investigations, even the densest voters will know them for what they are. Our elected representatives seem intent - for the first time - on solving the problem of apathy in the UK. Keep it up, chaps. You may not be justifying your expense claims, but you are finally earning your salaries.

Could we really be this lucky?

Labour MPs may sue over expenses | Politics | The Observer.

If these aggrieved gentles act on their threats, the effects will be wonderful. Some lawyers will make an honest living. The corruption of our members of parliament will be kept in the public gaze throughout the next election campaign. Labour will have its resources sapped to deal with the litigation. Some might even win, forcing the worst enemy ever known to the British working class to divert money from its election war chest to the payment of their damages. Some of them will undoubtedly lose, to further humiliation. Best of all, I would not put it past a high quality civil court judge to berate the Crown Prosecution Service for not having brought them to justice.

It would all be just too delicious. Please do it guys. Pretty please.

Tom's day of heavenly peace



[Click on pictures to enlarge]

It has been a strange week. A few meetings in Beijing, but mainly I have been on conference calls with Europe, lasting - because of the time difference - into the late evening. It has been oddly tiring, although not unusually busy. Today, however, was reserved for leisure. I can't visit a new place without some exploration.

Beijing207Fairly strenuous it proved to be as I walked around the city for five hours. At several points, I paused to reflect how lucky I am to have such a life; to have the chance to visit the far-off places I dreamed of as a boy. My whole family has lived in one square mile of what is now Wales, probably, since prehistory. It seems to be my destiny to improve our averages when it comes to travel.

The Forbidden City was not quite what I expected. Yes, it's huge and impressive and oozes history. Yet it also feels rather sad. It's as if the Emperor had just walked away and no-one had quite decided what to do with it. Renovation of such a complex must be a huge burden. It covers 7.8 million square feet and comprises 980 buildings. It is a city within a city. A city that feels, in parts, abandoned and neglected. Some structures are quite dilapidated, although crews were working on others. The task of maintenance is eternal. While it's a "World Heritage Site" and rightly so, I can't help feeling it would be better put to use. Such wonderful spaces should be occupied and enjoyed, not just gawped at by the likes of me. The occupants would also pick up on minor repairs that would otherwise become major while waiting for scheduled maintenance.




It was crowded, particularly at entrance and exit where I was pressed closer to a mass of strangers than any Englishman can well endure (yet without ever feeling in danger, or worrying about my wallet). After a while, the masses de-merged into family groups and I could observe the Chinese at leisure. My main impression was of extended families. I saw some old people so thin and drawn that it was hard to believe they were mobile. Yet they were cheerfully led, or pushed around by their families and looked happy in their company. The welfare state in Britain has destroyed so much. Such skeletal specimens would be in a "home", out of sight and out of mind. Here they cheerfully chatted to the family's infants, who seemed completely relaxed (as they should be) in the company of the old and frail.

Basking happily in the bright sunshine in their leisure wear, many Chinese wore English slogans. I never understand why our language has such glamour for strangers. Apart from the usual brand names (paid for or otherwise) there were random English words. One lady had "Praisworthy" (sic) emblazoned on her blouse. I don't know why our scruffy leisure costume has been adopted at all. Traditional Chinese clothes are so much more attractive, but I only saw a few people - usually very old - wearing them. Even most of the very elderly sported trainers and jeans. I noticed the cheap and brightly coloured baseball hats handed out by tour organisers so they can recognise their flock in crowds were lined with the attractive check that Burberry has now pretty much had to abandon, so "common" has it become.


Tienanmen Square (天安门广场) did not disappoint although, as my Chinese teacher in Moscow had warned me, the full visual effect of its vastness (440,000 square metres!) has been diminished by the erection of Mao Zedong's mausoleum in the centre. In the short film I have posted, the mausoleum is behind me and you are only seeing half, perhaps less, of the full square. As a young teenage Maoist I had dreamed of joining the Red Guards there to see the Great Helmsman in person. I sat to reflect for a while and chuckled at the idiocy of youth.

The only blights on the day were the street vendors and other sharks in the tourist pond. The first couple, claiming to be art students, talked me into viewing an "exhibition" of their works. They proved to be mere flimflam men for vendors of cheap tourist tat. Another "student" tried the same script minutes later but got even shorter shrift. A motorcycle rickshaw driver tried to charge me more than 10 times the most expensive taxi fare I have paid in China. I paid him a mere 4 times and threatened (bluffing) to call the police if he didn't get lost. A passerby laughed and said "the police will want money too", but he backed off. This was entertaining enough in its way, but sad in its effects. I spent the day avoiding engagement with other people, when I could have practised my Chinese more.

Beijing209I would probably have bought something today, if not constantly wary of being tricked. I am sure such people damage a tourist economy far more than the benefit they gain themselves. If you spend 60 years telling people that capitalism is theft, however, and then tell them to be capitalists, it's not entirely surprising.

Despite that, all in all, it was a great and highly memorable afternoon. I have saved the Great Wall and much more for future trips. Tomorrow, I fly to Shanghai for two more weeks of work before returning to Moscow to tidy up my affairs and hand over my practice to my colleagues and friends before moving permanently to China.

At my advanced age, it's a wonderful thing to have a great adventure ahead - and so much more to explore.

Trafigura releases report

Minton report: Carter-Ruck give up bid to keep Trafigura study secret | World news | The Guardian.

So Trafigura has given up its counter-productive attempts to suppress the Minton report. We can all read it if we wish. It's a dry technical account of what happened, setting out the possible health consequences to those who came in contact with the waste.

These were clearly matters of public interest and the Guardian was right to report them. In the wake of the cyber-furore, I am sure that companies and their lawyers will reflect on what happened and take different decisions in future. Lawyers are well aware of the non-legal consequences of legal actions and do take them into account when giving advice, though that advice is not always taken.

The practical consequences of an injunction are different now that opinion in favour of free speech can be rapidly mobilised by Twitter and blogs. It was interesting and gratifying that the editor of the Guardian credited the blogosphere in the linked article. Bloggers need to be aware however, even in their moment of triumph, that injunctions need to be taken seriously. Campaigning to have them lifted is fine, but breaching them can have serious consequences. The blogosphere is so entertaining partly because many bloggers are "not worth suing" and so don't worry about laws like defamation. Even that is unwise. Breaching an injunction is even more unwise. You could end up in jail for contempt of court.

Yesterday, I expressed my disappointment that so many bloggers misdirected their ire at working lawyers doing (as far as we all know) an honest job of work. In that context, please note that Trafigura's chief financial officer, told the Telegraph:

We decided that our best course of action at the time was to get the injunction, because we didn't want more inaccurate reporting on things which are very clearly wrong effectively. It is a heavy-handed approach, absolutely. With hindsight, could it have been done differently? Possibly.

The relevant words here are "We decided". Though this gentleman's protestation that the injunction "...was never intended to gag parliament or attack free speech..." is positively Mandelsonian, he has the decency to take responsibility on behalf of the company for its decision. QED.

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers

Carter-Ruck in new move to stop debate in parliament | UK news | The Guardian.

I understand all the concern about injunctions preventing the reporting of Parliament, but why are the lawyers at Carter-Ruck the villains (and partner Adam Tudor in particular?) There have been flash mobs outside their offices and they have been vilified across the British blogosphere.

Why is the headline to the linked article not "Trafigura in new move to stop debate in Parliament?" Lawyers do nothing without instructions. Those instructions come from their clients and whatever actions they take are on their clients' behalf and in their name. If Mr Tudor has been asked to block publication, then that is what he must try to do - whether he personally approves or not. You may say he is liable to criticism for failing to advise his clients that their actions would be counter-productive (as they certainly have been - who had heard of Trafigura before?). However, you don't even know whether the actions were on his advice or against it. He can't tell you without his client's permission, which is hardly likely to be forthcoming.

Perhaps Adam Tudor is the ass or the villain you think he is. A first class degree from Oxford doesn't speak to his morality or his common-sense. You should at least accept that he is the agent of his clients in these matters. If you want to be angry, be angry with them. Except maybe you shouldn't. At least not just yet.

If there is anything to make Adam Tudor smile in the media today, perhaps it's this quote from Prodicus, in the course of roundly criticising him and his partners and calling them asses;

These are the world's smartest legal brains with vast collective experience.

If the partners of Carter-Ruck have a collective sense of humour, they will use that quote on their website, to the irritation of the world's smartest legal brains. After all, they didn't go into defamation work to be loved. As I am sure they are reminding themselves today.

An independent legal profession, free to serve the interests of (popular or unpopular) clients, is a pre-requisite of a free society. You may not like how much some lawyers earn for doing this important work, but if you want the big bucks what's stopping you? There's almost always a shortage of legal talent. Get the qualification, put in 20 years of hard work, and maybe you can nose through the flash mobs in your Porsche too.

Because that's really why the lawyers are the villains here, isn't it? The English Vice: Envy. I can understand "rich bastard" rhetoric from the envious left, but the rest of the blogosphere should really know better.

[I am a partner in a City law firm. I am not, and have never been, a partner or employee of Carter-Ruck]

The Boys Who Cry Racism

The Boys Who Cry Racism by Harry Stein, City Journal 15 October 2009.

The linked article is an excellent piece about how the once-serious issue of racism has become a casual political smear.

...the charge of racism is invariably a crock; indeed, that more than simply an expression of (often contrived) liberal moral outrage, it’s intended to be the ultimate conversation stopper. Ward Connerly, long the leader of the fight against racial preferences in America, observes that he’s had the experience more times than he cares to count of speaking before an audience, knowing that 99 of 100 people agree with him. “But if there’s one angry black person in the audience who disagrees,” he says, “that person controls the room. He’ll go on about the last 400 years, and institutional racism, and ‘driving while black,’ and the other 99 will just sit there and fold like a cheap accordion.” And Connerly is black himself. For the liberal opinion makers and trend setters who’ve set themselves up as America’s racial referees, the accused racist is always presumed to be guilty of at least something.

Do read the whole thing. What's true in America may be even more true in Britain, where the equality industry has a vested interest in finding racists under our beds. If the BNP is constantly in the news, it's not because its paltry ragbag of idiots represents a threat; it's because banging on about it keeps Trevor and his team in their sinecures.

The worst "reform" of modern times?

I was brought to blogging by a shocking piece of Labour legislation, but I am coming around to the view that the worst legal "reform" of my life was carried out under a Conservative government. In 1986, the Crown Prosecution Service opened for business. Before then, the police officers who investigated cases prosecuted them (or employed lawyers to do it for them). This was thought somehow to be a conflict of interest, but in an adversarial system, conflict is part of the process. It made a lot of sense for the accuser to face the accused, with an independent judge deciding between them. However, in the 1980's this was thought insufficiently "modern" and the CPS was formed

At the time, reflecting on what kind of fellow-lawyers might opt for a career with the CPS, I simply thought it was a shame that the best legal talent would no longer be available to the police. I was not wrong. When my wife served on a jury, she noticed that - though the cheap local defence barrister was hopeless - the Crown Prosecutor was worse. Like many others at the time, however, I entirely missed the truly important point. I would like to think the government of the day did too.

Under the current administration, there have been numerous incidents that should have led to prosecutions, but didn't. Does anyone doubt that Yates of the Yard would have prosecuted Lord Levy and Tony Blair in the affair of cash for peerages, for example? Would there have been prosecutions for the undoubted frauds perpetrated by numerous Members of Parliament in relation to their parliamentary expense claims? It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the CPS takes orders from its political masters; the Director of Public Prosecutions (currently Kier Starmer QC) reporting to the Attorney General (currently the Baroness Scotland).

Nor did the CPS acquit itself with honour in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes. Had you or I killed him on that tube train in the mistaken belief that he might otherwise detonate a "suicide bomb", we would have faced a jury. If the jury believed our explanation, we would have been acquitted. There is no question, however, that the police or the CPS would just say "fair enough" to our story themselves. Particularly if the CCTV records of the incident had mysteriously disappeared, apparently because you or I had removed and "lost" them. Particularly if we had lied about the incident and defamed the dead man in the days following. However, that wasn't how it worked for the officers of the Metropolitan Police who killed Jean Charles or their bosses who ordered them to do it. In consequence, the bereaved family feels cheated and the thinking fraction of the population feels suspicious that something was covered up.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that senior police officers, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister did not want the legality of the "Kratos" shoot-to-kill orders issued in the wake of 7/7 tested in court. I believe the then Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Metropolitan Police Commissioner have cases to answer for Jean Charles' death because they gave illegal orders to kill. With the CPS under political direction, those cases will never come to trial, unless the family brings (as I believe it should) a private prosecution. Of course, the previous system would have been only a little better. With the Met's own officers involved, an inspector from another police force would have investigated the matter and it would have been his decision whether or not to prosecute. Whether he would have acted with integrity or covered up for his colleagues would at least have been out of political control.

I think the CPS was created out of a sincere desire to professionalise the administration of justice. In yet another example of the law of unintended consequences, however, it has made justice - whenever the men of power are involved - far less likely. As we must fear the men of power more, it has made us less free.

Pay it back, Ms Smith. It's not yours.

Jacqui Smith Request for Payback.

The Sunlight Centre for Open Politics has written a very fair letter to Jacqui Smith. Ms Smith has cheated the taxpayer and an apology will not suffice. If you or I cheated our employer of £4,000, let alone £42,000, an apology would not absolve us. Perhaps if we paid it back, with interest, a kind employer might drop the charges after dismissing us. More likely he would call the police anyway. If he realised that our whole family had become so accustomed to living at his expense that they were carelessly including bills for their porn movies in our claims, I am pretty sure he would.

Ms Smith should pay the money back. Then her employers can decide what to do with her. As various MPs are showing, including the God-bothering Ann Widdecombe, they still don't get it. Not yet, at least. With an election looming, the party leaders are "getting it" though. They are digging into their own pockets to pay back their own unjustified claims.

It was only a proper expense, ladies and gentlemen of Parliament, if it was wholly and necessarily incurred in the performance of your duties. Lying about your main residence to score tens of thousands towards mortgage payments and/or household expenses you would have had whether an MP or not, was not. "Flipping" your homes so as to claim expenses on each in turn, was not. Flipping, claiming expenses to refurbish and then selling for a profit was property development at the taxpayers' cost, not a legitimate expense.

Your every protest now just condemns you more in the public eye. So, "get it" finally. Shut up. Pay up. All of you. Now. And never let us hear a slimy, hypocritical word about your vocation for "public service" again.

Lies, damn lies and government statistics

Children educated at home at severe disadvantage, study shows | Education |

These conclusions are based on a sample of just over 1,000 children. Who selected that sample and on what criteria? Have children who are simply absent from school (because their neglectful parents can't be bothered to send them) been included alongside children whose committed parents have made a positive - and challenging - choice to educate them themselves?

For now, the authorities say they will always license parents unless there are clear negative factors. How long does anyone think it will take before the ideologues of the public sector start refusing licences to those who simply do not conform? If they apply the same criteria they use for adoption, for example, how many home educators will qualify?

Just as nationalising health services has led to the state thinking it owns our bodies, so nationalising education has led to it thinking it owns our children. This is brewing into a disaster.