Saturday, 3 August 2013

Papers please

On Radio 4's Any Questions today, the matter of Government owned vans driving through areas of high recent immigrant concentration, displaying messages designed to encourage illegal immigrants to return voluntarily to their countries of origin, was discussed. The vans are bearing posters with the following message on: "In this country illegally? Go home or face arrest." The questioner in the radio show audience compared this message to 1970s style racist graffiti. Some of the panel, such as left wing journalist Owen Jones, agreed. Former Tory Home Office minister Michael Howard made the point that to be against illegal immigration did not necessarily make one a racist.
These vans are clearly, in my opinion, a stunt on the part of the Conservative Party, aimed at impressing the Daily Mail reading, potential UKIP voting demographic.
However, another aspect of this populist PR campaign which was not even mentioned on Any Questions was the action taken by police at various railway and tube stations throughout London over the last few days, to stop passers by and ask them to produce identification to show they were legally entitled to be in the country. Even where this has been covered on TV and radio news programmes, the main disapproval expressed by commentators has been of the fact that the police have been focussing their attention on non-white members of the public. But while this racial profiling is obviously a cause for concern in itself, perhaps an even bigger concern is the idea that the police now feel comfortable to stop ordinary law abiding citizens going about their daily business and ask them to produce identification papers!!! This is something that has always been anathema to the British way of thinking about the role of police; indeed, when the last Labour government attempted to bring in ID cards, they could not even get enough support within their own parliamentary party to get the bill through parliament.
I'm not sure how many of those that the police pulled aside to ask for ID actually obliged them by producing their passports, driving licences, immigration papers or whatever else was being asked for. They were all fully entitled to simply refuse and walk away, and unless the police had sufficient reason to suspect them of an offense, there would have been nothing the police could do to stop them. If people now believe that they are obliged to provide evidence of their right to be on the streets any time some over zealous copper decides they don't look British enough, that is perhaps the most worrying aspect of this whole sorry affair.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Why I don't like the EU (Email to James O'Brien, LBC Radio presenter)

Dear James,
I am a frequent listener to your thought provoking radio programme, in spite of the fact that I find it quite frustrating sometimes not to be able to contribute, due to the fact that my boss would not approve of me calling from work - and as a public sector employee I suppose it would not be an appropriate use of my tax-payer funded time anyway. However, there is one matter that regularly crops up in your phone-ins about which my enforced silence is particularly galling, so I will take the opportunity to air my comments in this email, as a substitute for actually being able to call the show!
During your discourses over the last few months I have often heard you comment that you have never heard an opponent of the EU give a reason for their opposition which did not involve their feelings about foreigners. I would describe myself as being against the EU and my reasons are entirely devoid of any xenophobic basis. The undemocratic nature of that institution is my only grounds for opposition. I am not particularly fond of UKIP since, increasingly, the main thrust of their attempts to win support amongst the general public have been to push the notion that the country is 'full up' and to whip up fear about further immigration, as well as dishing out a generous helping of opportunistic Islamophobia, for example when the then new party leader, Lord Pearson of Ranoch, announced a new policy of supporting a ban on burkhas.
Furthermore, they seem to be even more bent on attacking the welfare state than the current governing coalition. There are two main reasons for my objection to the UK's membership of the European Union: the first (and lesser of the two) is the sheer size of the institution. In a democracy, the amount of power held by each member of the electorate is, obviously, inversely proportionate to the size of the electorate. The number of people that need to agree with me, if I am to succeed in getting my views represented at government level, increases by an order of magnitude when the government in question is a continent-wide one. Of course, one could argue that this disadvantage is outweighed by the increase in the power and reach of government. A Europe-wide government is able to exert far more control and to wield far more influence in the world than a mere national one. But then, one could counter this argument by citing the increase in inefficiency that inevitably comes with an increase in size and scale.
The second reason for my objection to UK membership of the EU is, in my view, by far the more salient one. It is to do with the huge diversity of native languages spoken by EU citizens. There is no unified language for the EU and consequently, neither is there a coherent public debate about the issues on which the EU legislates and over which its policies hold sway. Debates take place within individual countries about these issues but, as a rule, if i write an article or a blog post espousing a particular political viewpoint, or if you run a campaign to try and publicise a political issue, our efforts to try and persuade our fellow citizens as to the rightness of our respective causes are unlikely to have any significant effect outside of the uk. This is even more true for citizens of countries that speak less widely understood languages than English. An individual, a political party, a pressure group or campaigning organisation in, say, Slovenia, has little chance of making an impact on the majority of the EU electorate (an impact which would then be reflected in the voting decisions of that electorate) because of the language barrier. You may feel that I am exaggerating the extent of the insularity of social and political debate within European nations, but I don't believe so. How often do you read an article, watch a TV show, listen to a radio programme or even read a blog post written in a language other than English, even in translation? Even with the translation technology available today (eg. Google Translate), there simply isn't the degree of mutual comprehension to enable the kind of trans-continental public conversation and debate which should underpin a viable and democratically healthy electorate.
The effect of this inability of the citizens of Europe to have a coherent debate on the social and political issues that effect them is that power is devolved away from the ordinary citizens, each one of whom lacks the linguistic means to persuade significant numbers to support his or her viewpoint on any particular issue, and into the hands of the political elite gathered in the debating chambers of Brussels and Strasbourg and their associated institutions. Hence the European Union is characterised by a 'top-down' style of governance, and this situation persists in spite of all attempts to enhance the level of democratic accountability of its institutions. Democracy should be a 'bottom up' affair in which the legitimacy of government arises from the prior deliberations of those who are governed. Without a linguistic basis for such electorate-wide deliberations, the legitimacy of the entire European Union project is, in my view, at the very least, questionable.
Finally, I must also take issue with you in connection with one of the methods I have sometimes heard you use in your on-air arguments with anti-EU callers. I have heard you on several occasions asking such callers to explain just which EU laws are causing them such consternation. When they have difficulty in coming up with any dramatic examples of Brussels-inspired oppression, you triumphantly point out that they are actually getting themselves unneccessarily worked up over something that really doesn't matter that much since, after all, it only affects such unimportant things as post-office privatisation and the number of weekly domestic refuse collections. This is, in my opinion, extremely unfair and short-sighted. Imagine if we lived under a relatively benevolent dictatorship, one which, say, respected human rights, didn't over-tax us and didn't lead us into unneccessary wars. Would you take the view that anyone campaigning for the right to freely elect our own leader was some kind of reactionary nutcase? Yet this is precisely analagous to your stance towards Gerard Batten and various other callers (admittedly usually called Nigel or Derek) who failed to impress you with smoking gun examples of EU tyranny.
Okay, that concludes my rant. Thanks for reading it. I will now be able to listen to any future discussions of this subject on your often excellent show without feeling frustrated and disenfranchised by my inability to put my own two-penn'orth in. Now that I've got that off my chest, though, there is also the subject of creeping NHS privatisation. And the bedroom tax. And Boris Johnson, and 'workfare', and dangerous dogs. Oh, and the origins of prejudice against people with ginger hair. Okay, you might be getting another email from me soon...

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Reply from Helen-Mary Jones AM

Dear Andrew,
Thank you for your message.
I am, of course, fully aware of the exact constitutional position, but it is rather hard using the term "the UK parliament legislating on England only matters"' or "the UK government acting on England only matters" each time one has to make a distinction between England only policies and those of devolved governments. English Parliament or English government is useful shorthand.
I cannot speak for other nationalists on this but it is my personal belief that it is most unfair for MPs from Scotland to vote on matters that have no effect on their constituents and only on communities in England. I will feel the same way about MPs representing Welsh constituencies if the referendum on March 3rd is passed and the National Assembly's lawmaking powers are effectively clarified. In this context I am pleased with the decision of my colleagues in Westminster, the Plaid Cymru MPs who have not spoken or voted on England only matters since devolution. I support the idea of an English Parliament in principal, though I can understand that at this point there would be some difficulty in putting this in to practice because the current model of devolution is so asymmetric, with each of the three devolved administrations having such different powers. Hopefully that will change.
I hope this clarifies position on this matter.
Yours sincerely
Helen Mary Jones AM
Sent from my BlackBerry

Email to David Cameron

Dear Prime Minister,
I note that in your speech yesterday at the Munich Security Conference you stated your view that some young Moslem men "find it hard to identify with Britain... because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity."
I believe that one aspect of this weakening of our collective British identity is the unfair distribution of democracy resulting from an unequal devolution process that gives a degree of independence to some of the nations of the UK while leaving England without a national parliament and subject to legislation made by MPs representing constituencies unaffected by the very legislation they are helping to enact. This has led to a situation whereby many people in England are no longer as willing as they once were to identify themselves as British but prefer to identify as English, a term that for some people has primarily ethnic rather than civic overtones.
Do you agree that an important step towards creating a unified, inclusive, civic British identity would be to end the fragmenting effects of unfair devolution by, at the very least, bringing in legislation allowing only MPs from constituencies in England to vote on matters that are handled by the devolved parliament/assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
Yours sincerely,

Email to Helen-Mary Jones (deputy leader of Plaid Cymru in the Welsh Assembly and the party’s spokesman on Health and Social Services)

Dear Ms Jones,

Yesterday on Radio 4's 'Any Questions', while discussing the UK Government's proposal to sell much of the woodland overseen by the Forestry Commission to private companies, you expressed your gladness that the Welsh Assembly Government had no intention of introducing similar proposals for woodlands in Wales and then stated that as far as woodlands in England were concerned, this was a matter for 'the English Government'. You used this term, 'the English Government', two or three times in the ensuing discussion.

Obviously you are aware that there is no such entity as the English Government, England being governed by the UK Government through parliament which is made up of MPs from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I am interested to learn whether your reference to 'the English Government' was merely a slip of the tongue, or is this how you and perhaps other nationalists in Wales and Scotland now characterise the UK Government at least as far as its competencies in regard to devolved issues are concerned?

I would also be interested to learn whether you support the idea of a genuine English Government and parliament, made up purely of MPs from constituencies in England, to handle matters of legislation relating only to England.

Yours sincerely,


Saturday, 1 May 2010

In defense of PR

Further to my one-before-last post, in which I advocated voting for the Liberal Democrats in order to help bring about a situation where a hung parliament might lead to the introduction of PR, and in light of the fact that both Labour and Conservative campaigners have been frantically highlighting the perceived dangers of hung parliaments (and therefore, by implication, of PR, which tends to lead to a hung parliament [or, more positively, a balanced parliament]), I intend, in this post, to address the main criticisms that I have heard people make about the concept of proportional representation as a means of electing the national parliament.

Criticism 1: PR is less likely to deliver an overall majority to any party, and therefore leads to coalition governments which are both weak and impossible to vote out.
- One of the advantages that many people claim for the first-past-the-post system is that it usually delivers a government with a majority of seats in parliament, thus enabling it to get its planned programme of legislation enacted into law without too much difficulty. But surely the notion of one party holding a majority of the seats in parliament is only justifiable if that party is supported by the majority of the electorate. If it is not supported by the majority of voters then effectively what we have is a group of people representing a minority of the population, forcing their will onto the majority. That doesn't seem very democratic to me. A coalition government may be weak, in the sense that no one party within the coalition may be able to achieve everything it would like to, and in the sense that its actions must involve negotiation, bargaining and compromise, but that is inevitable in a situation where politicians are representing a public with a diverse range of political viewpoints, and must surely be preferable to one party lording it over the legislative chamber without a genuinely democratic mandate from the voters. Decisions arrived at through negotiation and compromise may even sometimes be better than those which originate with one party and then enjoy free passage through parliament by virtue of a majority. As for the argument, which is sometimes made, that a coalition government can never be voted out, this is only true to the extent that the electorate can never be 'voted out'! A coalition government, elected using proportional representation, needs to hold the confidence of a parliament which reflects the political 'shape' of the electorate as a whole and, unlike the zero-sum game of first-past-the-post elections - where the representatives of one part of the electorate hold total power for a period and then lose all power, to be replaced by the representatives of another part of the electorate - under PR a coalition government, while it may not necessarily be so easy to vote out, will, if it wishes to continue in power, change it's composition to reflect the changing political demographics of the electorate. Of course, if a large enough part of the electorate become completely disenchanted with the coalition government then, following a general election using PR, the new government (whether it was a coalition or not) would, no doubt, look very different to the previous one.

Criticism 2: PR would lead to political stalemates, with governments unable to act because of the lack of a clear parliamentary majority.
- This is really a very similar criticism to the last one and, while it's true that under PR it is often harder to get legislation passed, this is, in my opinion, no bad thing. It is felt by many people that there are already far too many laws on our statute books and, as mentioned in my previous answer, the need for negotiation and compromise is an important way of ensuring that any legislation which is passed is as acceptable as it can be to the public as a whole. In the devolved parliaments and assemblies of the UK the various parties involved in coalition governments are learning to thrash out compromises and come to agreements which, though they sometimes do take a long time to arrive at (eg. the decisions involving the handing over of police powers to Stormont) do, as a result of the compromises involved, tend to have the support of a broader section of the electorate than they would do had they been foisted on the public by a government which, while not being supported by the majority of voters, nevertheless held a majority in parliament.

Criticism 3: PR would allow minority parties, such as the BNP, to hold a disproportionate amount of power.
- It's true that under PR a situation could arise where a minority government might need to strike a deal with an unpopular minority party in order to get a proposed piece of legislation passed through parliament. This does mean that small parties could potentially hold a very small amount of power (though only to the extent that the more mainstream parties would be prepared to compromise with them - the more extreme ideas of parties like the BNP would almost certainly not be up for discussion) but it would not be a disproportionate amount of power. The ability any small party had to influence decisions made in parliament would be in direct proportion to the level of its electoral support, and that is how it should be in a democracy, even where parties representing those with deplorable and offensive views are concerned.

Criticism 4: PR takes away the connection between MPs and local areas as MPs do not represent particular constituencies under PR.
- This is, in my opinion, the strongest argument against PR but also the most easily dealt with. The system of PR which I am most in favour of (and which is, I believe, the one favoured by the Lib Dems) is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which delivers a result which is both proportional in party terms and keeps the connection between individual MPs and local constituencies. For a detailed explanation of how STV works, see here.

In my opinion there are four major democratic deficits facing the people of England today: Firstly, the lack of properly representative democracy in the UK - something that would be remedied by the introduction of PR; secondly, the lack of direct democracy, ie. referenda, when it comes to major constitutional issues (such as the giving away of significant powers to the EU, or issues around devolution within the UK); thirdly, the lack of an English Parliament and the consequent 'West Lothian' anomaly; fourthly, our subservience to the inherently undemocratic European Union. The introduction of PR into the UK electoral system would not only solve the first of these problems but could, perhaps, be an important step on the way to resolving the other three.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Money too tight to mention

I don't follow the news as closely as I perhaps should these days, much of my time being taken up with work and family commitments, so I'm probably displaying huge political ignorance here, but there are some things that have been puzzling me as I think about the issues involved in this election campaign.
As a country, we owe huge amounts of money; according to some of the panel on this week's question time the national debt amounts to the equivalent of £90,000 for each household in Britain, or £1.1 million for each day since the birth of Christ!
Whenever he's questioned about the financial mess we are in and the consequent need for public spending cuts and savings (the scale of which, many commentators say, are currently being hidden from the electorate by the three main parties) Gordon Brown shrugs off any personal blame by pointing out that we are in a global financial crisis which originated in America and affects the whole of the worldwide economy (as he did, for example, on tonight's interview with Jeremy Paxman).
But wasn't the global financial crisis originating in America originally referred to as a 'credit-crunch'? And didn't it largely consist of banks losing lots of money through dodgy investments (mainly in the sub-prime mortgage market) and in some cases going out of business, while those that remained battened down the hatches and became extremely cagey about lending money to businesses? It wasn't about national debt.
So the huge debt we're saddled with is not directly connected to the global financial crisis - unless, of course, it was incurred as a result of the extremely costly bailouts that the government so generously undertook to prevent crucial businesses from going bust as a result of the worldwide crunch. But the recipients of those massive bailouts were, almost exclusively, the banks.
In which case, from whom did we borrow these vast sums needed to effect the bailout?
Presumably, from other banks! Ones that, clearly, weren't in such dire financial straits at the time. In which case, why couldn't the struggling banks have just borrowed the money directly from the financially healthy banks? Why did the government (and, ipso facto, the taxpayer) have to be involved at all? And anyway, if these apparently financially robust banks existed, why was it so crucial to the economy that the failing banks didn't go under? Okay, some bank customers might have lost their savings, but the government could far more easily have bailed those customers out rather than racking up huge debts getting the whole banking sector back up and running, fat salaries, hefty bonuses and all.
Anyway, like I said, these are probably stupid questions born of ignorance, but they've been puzzling me so I thought I might as well mention them.