Saturday, 28 February 2009

The erosion of liberty in Britain

An amazing piece by Philip Pullman. I didn't expect to find myself agreeing heartily with something Pullman wrote, but on this occasion, I am tempted to say "Amen, brother." And even more surprisingly, the piece appears to have been removed from The Times.

It has been reproduced in various places, but I first spotted it when reading Longrider, to whom many thanks.

Are such things done on Albion’s shore?

The image of this nation that haunts me most powerfully is that of the sleeping giant Albion in William Blake’s prophetic books. Sleep, profound and inveterate slumber: that is the condition of Britain today.

We do not know what is happening to us. In the world outside, great events take place, great figures move and act, great matters unfold, and this nation of Albion murmurs and stirs while malevolent voices whisper in the darkness - the voices of the new laws that are silently strangling the old freedoms the nation still dreams it enjoys.

We are so fast asleep that we don’t know who we are any more. Are we English? Scottish? Welsh? British? More than one of them? One but not another? Are we a Christian nation - after all we have an Established Church - or are we something post-Christian? Are we a secular state? Are we a multifaith state? Are we anything we can all agree on and feel proud of?

The new laws whisper:

You don’t know who you are

You’re mistaken about yourself

We know better than you do what you consist of, what labels apply to you, which facts about you are important and which are worthless

We do not believe you can be trusted to know these things, so we shall know them for you

And if we take against you, we shall remove from your possession the only proof we shall allow to be recognised

The sleeping nation dreams it has the freedom to speak its mind. It fantasises about making tyrants cringe with the bluff bold vigour of its ancient right to express its opinions in the street. This is what the new laws say about that:

Expressing an opinion is a dangerous activity

Whatever your opinions are, we don’t want to hear them

So if you threaten us or our friends with your opinions we shall treat you like the rabble you are

And we do not want to hear you arguing about it

So hold your tongue and forget about protesting

What we want from you is acquiescence

The nation dreams it is a democratic state where the laws were made by freely elected representatives who were answerable to the people. It used to be such a nation once, it dreams, so it must be that nation still. It is a sweet dream.

You are not to be trusted with laws

So we shall put ourselves out of your reach

We shall put ourselves beyond your amendment or abolition

You do not need to argue about any changes we make, or to debate them, or to send your representatives to vote against them

You do not need to hold us to account

You think you will get what you want from an inquiry?

Who do you think you are?

What sort of fools do you think we are?

The nation’s dreams are troubled, sometimes; dim rumours reach our sleeping ears, rumours that all is not well in the administration of justice; but an ancient spell murmurs through our somnolence, and we remember that the courts are bound to seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and we turn over and sleep soundly again.

And the new laws whisper:

We do not want to hear you talking about truth

Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours

We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on

We do not want to hear you talking about innocence

Innocent means guilty of things not yet done

We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence

You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt

We do not want to hear you talking about justice

Justice is whatever we want to do to you

And nothing else

Are we conscious of being watched, as we sleep? Are we aware of an ever-open eye at the corner of every street, of a watching presence in the very keyboards we type our messages on? The new laws don’t mind if we are. They don’t think we care about it.

We want to watch you day and night

We think you are abject enough to feel safe when we watch you

We can see you have lost all sense of what is proper to a free people

We can see you have abandoned modesty

Some of our friends have seen to that

They have arranged for you to find modesty contemptible

In a thousand ways they have led you to think that whoever does not want to be watched must have something shameful to hide

We want you to feel that solitude is frightening and unnatural

We want you to feel that being watched is the natural state of things

One of the pleasant fantasies that consoles us in our sleep is that we are a sovereign nation, and safe within our borders. This is what the new laws say about that:

We know who our friends are

And when our friends want to have words with one of you

We shall make it easy for them to take you away to a country where you will learn that you have more fingernails than you need

It will be no use bleating that you know of no offence you have committed under British law

It is for us to know what your offence is

Angering our friends is an offence

It is inconceivable to me that a waking nation in the full consciousness of its freedom would have allowed its government to pass such laws as the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), the Terrorism Act (2000), the Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001), the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Extension Act (2002), the Criminal Justice Act (2003), the Extradition Act (2003), the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003), the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004), the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), the Inquiries Act (2005), the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), not to mention a host of pending legislation such as the Identity Cards Bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.


And those laws say:

Sleep, you stinking cowards

Sweating as you dream of rights and freedoms

Freedom is too hard for you

We shall decide what freedom is

Sleep, you vermin

Sleep, you scum

And if you are wondering what Pullman is talking about, you might find that the Abolition of Freedom Act 2009 makes interesting reading.

Diabolical morality

Many thanks to Guthrum for the pointer to DK, where the infernal blogger has some perceptive things to say about Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension, Iain Dale’s comments thereon, and respecting the law of contract. While perceptive, it’s not very polite, so I’ll copy a slightly amended version of the main points here:

First, the pension agreement will have been made previous to the mess-up, so it's hardly as though RBS haven't learned: it is simply that they respect the law of contract. It may not have been a very good contract, but the business has to stick to it. Because, you see, that's the way that the law works. . . .

if Goodwin does not act in a way that accords with Iain's personal sympathies, then the state should simply over-turn the law. Essentially, Iain's personal morals should take precedence over contract law. . . .

It is, after all, instructive to see how skin-deep the Tories' idea of liberty is, and what little difference there really is between the two main political parties.

And it is a very neat illustration of why personal morals should never be allowed to be involved in the making (or breaking) of laws.

Sorry, but I don’t think that the infernal one is right here. He appears, to me at least, to think that not breaking a contract is not a matter of morality, but of law. The truth of the matter is that keeping a contract (or keeping a promise or keeping your word) is a matter of personal morality. The infernal one appears to have a personal morality that believes that the rule of law is a good thing, and that keeping to the terms of a contract you make is a good thing. He appears to be criticising those who think that you can break your promise or change your contract on a whim. And if that is the case, he is completely right to do so, because it is immoral to break your word. The Bible describes the righteous man as one who “who keeps his oath even when it hurts” (Psalm 15:4).

In the end of the day, “morals” are about what is right and wrong, and “personal morals” are about what an individual believes to be right and wrong. And what you believe to be right or wrong will inevitably influence your views on what laws you make. To say that “personal morals should never be allowed to be involved in the making of laws,” is, I am afraid, complete nonsense.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

When does education end and indoctrination begin?

This is a serious question. Anyone of critical mind who spends much thinking about such issues will wonder. And anyone who spends much time in Primary schools looking at the posters on the wall might wonder as well.

It is, of course, inevitable that the perspective of teachers will come out in what is taught. It may well be that it is quite unintentional, and that the teacher believes that he or she is simply teaching good citizenship and agreed values. But who agreed these values? And what is good citizenship, anyway? Can teachers really be neutral? Isn't neutrality a myth?

Of course there are some examples that are rather blatant. I remember one Scottish mother telling me that her son had come home from primary school one day saying "I hate the English". She questioned him, and discovered that this hatred was a result of what he had been taught in history by his teacher. The teacher in question was well known in the area for being an active member of the SNP.

Many thanks to Bishop Hill for bringing to my attention another example of indoctrination from An Englishman's Castle. This one is rather subtle, and I suspect that some people might not realise that it is indoctrination at all.

(Edit: for more, see here.)

Yesterday . . .

. . . I blogged elsewhere rather than here.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Our government has some good ideas about bringing up children

Or then again, perhaps not.

I am grateful to JuliaM over at Ambush Predator for this story.

The government has warned parents against giving moral guidance. Well, that's the way the Daily Mail puts it. What the leaflets actually say is 'Discussing your values with your teenagers will help them to form their own. Remember though, that trying to convince them of what's right and wrong may discourage them from being open.' To be honest, I can't disagree with that - but surely responsible parenting does sometimes involve trying to convince your teenager of what's right and wrong. And if teenagers are not open, what's new? Even the most well-behaved and responsible teenagers frequently keep their thoughts to themselves.

And then there is the way that the government wants to tackle teenage pregnancy by making sex education compulsory in primary schools. If you believe that will be effective, I suspect that you are being a tad naive. As JuliaM says "So, telling them about sex and contraception isn’t working. So, let’s tell even more of them. That’ll work…" And it will mean less time spent on maths and English and things that might actually do their education some good.

And the government don't just have exciting plans to mess up education further, they also have exciting ways of spending your money. "The attempt to recruit parents to give state-approved advice to their children is backed by the production of leaflets, to be available in chemists' shops. There will also be a £530,000 handout to the fpa - once known as the Family Planning Association - to provide training for parents who want to advise their children on sex."

Monday, 23 February 2009


James Bartholomew has great post about the phenomenon of target-setting which has become such a feature of life in modern Britain.

I cannot remember when target-setting came into fashion, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Alas, it has often led to ridiculous consequences.

One of the reasons for this is that target-setting is largely about producing good statistics, and while statistics tell a story, they never tell the full story. Statistics can be massaged, and we have long known that statistics can be highly deceptive.

A closely related reason is that target setting encourages people to aim at hitting the target to the exclusion of everything else. In the real world, however, there are some things that are very desirable, but for which no target will be given. Unless one's job is very straight-forward, it is possible to hit all the targets, but to do the job unsatisfactorily.

Following on from that, a third reason is that target-setting often assumes that the people at the top who set the targets know everything, and that the people lower down the chain of command cannot think for themselves. The problem is that the less people are encouraged to think for themselves, the less they tend to.

The holy grail of pure freedom

In an interesting article in Libertarian Papers, Chandran Kukathas of the London School of Economics suggests that there are two kinds of libertarians - the Federalists and the Unionists.

Federalists envisage a society of freedom in which those who are not libertarian are given the freedom to organise themselves into unlibertarian communities and groups - on the grounds that if you do not give them such freedom, you are not being libertarian. The problem with this is that it means that there will be those within the Federation of Liberty who are not able to enjoy the freedom that the Federation is supposed to bring, so that “there could be a great deal of unfreedom in the Federation of Liberty.”

Unionists envisage a society of freedom in which those who are not libertarian are not given the freedom to organise themselves into unlibertarian communities and groups - on the grounds that in a truly libertarian society, libertarianism must be applied everywhere and to all. The problem with this is that it forces a conception of freedom on some people that they may not accept, and as such is coercive. “The Union of Liberty might in fact turn out, then, to be a union of not much liberty at all.”

The unhappy conclusion that Kukathas draws is that “neither interpretation of the libertarian first principle produces an outcome which seems particularly hospitable to liberty.” He then goes on to add, “Alas, as I see it, no other construction of libertarianism is possible. . . there is no third way, theoretically speaking. Libertarians must bite one bullet or the other.” In other words, they have to choose, and neither option will yield absolute freedom.

In other words, a society of true freedom is really an ephemeral will of the wisp which we can never achieve because we live in an imperfect world full of imperfect people.

At this point we move to the apostle Paul. In his letter to the church in Rome, he argues that everyone is imperfect - “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), and goes on to argue that as a result, no one is truly free. Everyone is either a slave of sin or a slave of obedience to God. In other words, you can serve an evil master or a good master, but you will inevitably serve something. (Romans 6:16 “Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey--whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to being accepted as righteous by God?”) Because we are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world, absolute freedom is unachievable, and we all, inevitably serve something. We have to choose what. Paul’s logic and conclusion is not dissimilar to that of Kukathas.

There is one difference between Paul and Kukathas. While both make their choice, for Paul the choice is pretty obvious. For Kukathas, the preferred option (Federalism) is taken somewhat reluctantly. And this is as it should be - Paul is a man who has met the risen Christ and who knows that Jesus Christ is absolutely good - in a way that nothing on earth is - and that to serve him is effectively true freedom. He has to be absolutist. Kukathas is dealing with life in an imperfect world, where even libertarian rulers (no, I don’t think that is a contradiction in terms!) are imperfect. He has to be pragmatic.

For myself, I think both of them are right. I agree with Paul, because I do believe that Jesus Christ is absolutely good. And like Kukathas I prefer Federalist libertarianism to Unionism, because Unionism tends toward the view that the state has the right to define what liberty is (or so it seems to me), and anything that smacks of “the state knows best” reminds me too much of what I see in Britain today.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Taking Bible verses out of context

There is a story about the man who decided to seek guidance from God by opening the Bible at random and sticking a pin in the page, and trusting that the words where the pin stuck indicated God's will for him.

The pin landed in the latter part of Matthew 27:5, describing the actions of Judas Iscariot: "he went and hanged himself."

Not satisfied with the result, the man tried again, and this time the pin landed at the end of Luke 10:37: "You go, and do likewise."

Now, I have not been trying this method of seeking divine guidance, but something spooky has just happened. I read that the wording on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia was a quotation from the Bible. (In fact it says "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof Lev. XXV X."

Being a Christian Libertarian, I thought I ought to look it up, and it found the verse actually begins "And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants."

Consecrate the fiftieth year? And proclaim liberty throughout the land? Hold on - it's only a matter of weeks until my 49th birthday. Does this mean that I'm supposed to be dropping everything else and dedicating 12 months to advancing the cause of liberty and opposing the erosion of freedom in Britain?

Celebrating diversity

Westboro Baptist Church would be funny if it was not so sad. And there are quite a few other adjectives that could be applied to it.

One of which is ‘fascinating’.

For there is no question that it is a very unusual phenomenon. British people visiting the USA are often struck by the very visible patriotism of Americans - such as the flying of flags, and the “God Bless America” bumper stickers on cars. All very unbritish. And then there is the very strange US Flag Code, which gives precise instructions for what one may and may not do with an American flag, and is enshrined in Federal law.

Against this background, Westboro Baptist Church is very unamerican. The slogan “God Hates America” is a shocking (for an American) parody of “God Bless America”. And when one visits the (distinctly odd) Westboro Baptist Church website, one is greeted with the shocking picture of an American flag being trodden underfoot. It gets stranger, because I could not find any reference to service times or the location of the church. What sort of church is this?

But as I googled, I found something else - a website entitled “In Defense of Westboro Baptist Church Pickets” which quotes Thomas Paine’s words “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” It says “Westboro Baptist Church provides the
ultimate test of our commitment to Freedom of Speech.” Fairly predictably, the two leading lights from Westboro Baptist Church have been banned from entering the UK, which shows how well this country is doing in that test.

Some people would say that Fred Phelps and his daughter are just a couple of harmless nutters. I would not go so far as to say that they are harmless, but they strike me as a lot less dangerous than the people who are running Britain at the moment.

There is not just one kind of extremist.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Moving closer to thoughtcrime

Raised hat to JuliaM for pointing out a Guardian report that the government is considering plans that would lead to thousands of Muslims being branded as extremists.

Among the signs that someone would be considered as an extremist is that "they argue that Islam bans homosexuality and that it is a sin against Allah".

There are no indications as to whether the writers of draft use the word "homosexuality" to refer to a practice or a preference, but many legislators don't seem to be willing to make a distinction.

But let us suppose that some Muslims do argue that even having homosexual preferences is banned by Islam, and is a sin, should they not be entitled to do so? Isn't this a basic part of freedom of speech and freedom of religion?

We don't know whether this proposal will eventually find its way into legislation or not, but the very fact that it is included in a draft is an indication that the Libertarian Party's sending of a free copy of Orwell's 1984 to every MP last year was not just a silly gesture.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Health, safety, and book banning

No, this is not about censorship and freedom of speech. It is about hyper-legislation, or to be precise, panic legislation. There is a lot of it around these days. A threat is spotted, there is a cry for something to be done, and politicians respond by passing hasty and poorly thought out legislation.

Last year, in the wake of the panic over lead paint on toys from China, the United States Congress passed a bill (the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act) which, among its other provisions, imposed tough new limits on lead in any products intended for use by children aged 12 or under, and made those limits retroactive.

The effect of this, according to Walter Olsen of City Journal, is that “children’s books published before 1985 should not be considered safe and may in many cases be unlawful to sell or distribute. Merchants, thrift stores, and booksellers may be at risk if they sell older volumes, or even give them away, without first subjecting them to testing—at prohibitive expense." The result may be that these books will simply have to be destroyed. (The thought of old books by that nice Mr. Bond going to landfill is truly distressing.)

The Act, by the way, passed the Senate by 89 votes to 3, and the House of Representatives by 424 votes to 1. The lone dissenter was Ron Paul.

Hat raised to Mr. Justin Taylor

Serious economic commentary

Hat raised to Mr Justin Taylor

For those who are wondering about the title

Pretty well everyone has come across marmalade, and has also encountered the sandwich. Both are generally acknowledged as having their place. But to put them together is generally regarded as slightly eccentric. And it would generally be considered that no person (or, ahem, bear) of taste and discernment would make the combination their preferred choice.

So it is with libertarianism and Christian faith.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The CofE, the outside of the cup, and the making of rules

And the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?” (Luke 11:39-40)

I’ve been thinking over the decision of the Church of England’s General Synod last week to ban clergy from joining the BNP. (There is apparently no problem with ordinary church members doing so, then.) This decision has been much discussed, with Michael White in the Guardian calling it "gesture politics.” And so it is. It is designed to ensure that the CofE is seen to be respectable. (I was going to use the phrase ‘whiter than white’, but it might be misunderstood.) Racism is unacceptable, and not to be tolerated.

This is, of course, as it should be. Racism is wrong for Christians - though one suspects that there are other things that Jesus Christ would find equally intolerable that the Church of England is prepared to tolerate, or simply cannot agree on.

The thing that strikes me as odd is that it is possible to be racist without joining the BNP, and I suppose it is possible to be a member of the BNP without being racist. (Only the most judgmental of people would jump to the conclusion that just because someone is a member of the BNP, they must be racist.) In other words, the CofE undoubtedly sending a signal that
they find racist unacceptable (something that they have signalled pretty clearly for decades), but they are not actually doing anything that will remove racism from the hearts of people. Making this rule will not stop members of the clergy from being racist. It is not racism that has been banned, but one particular activity which is generally seen as a manifestation of racism.

And therein lies the link with the Pharisees that Jesus spoke to. In making this rule, the CofE is making sure that the outside of the cup is clean, without actually doing anything to clean the inside. It is about being seen to be respectable, i.e. righteous. And a desire to be seen as righteous appears to have been an important priority for the Pharisees, just as it is with the CofE. And one of the signs of that, was the enthusiasm of the Pharisees for making rules. Again, much like the CofE.

But then, in Britain today, we seem to have a great enthusiasm for making new rules, and finding new things to ban. General Synod simply reflects Parliament.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Even authoritarians are entitled to freedom

Geert Wilders is not a friend of freedom. He apparently believes that Mein Kampf should be banned. And he believes that the Quran should be banned as well. Banning books seems to be an enthusiasm of his.

And now, ironically, the banner has been banned. Ironic, but not appropriate. Those who wish to deny freedom of speech (and of religion) are entitled to freedom of speech as much as anyone else, and to deny it to them goes against basic libertarian principles.

It seems to be a Christian principle too! After all, Scripture says "See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone." I Thessalonians 5:15)

Mainstream British politicians have been slow to speak up for freedom here. Shamefully, the only comment to have come from the LibDems so far (from Chris Huhne) has shown that their belief is freedom of speech is so restricted as to be useless. Michael Portillo is to be congratulated on speaking out for free speech, but the silence of David Cameron is deafening.

Next they came for the Christians

Raised hat to leg-iron for this.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Council officials order 16 year old girl not to go to church

There has been much coverage in the media of the foster mother who was been struck off by a council after a teenage Muslim girl in her care became a Christian.

JuliaM has written an interesting assessment of the council's behaviour in the case.

Hat raised.

More laws are not always a good idea

According to the Sidney Morning Herald, Liam Sheahan believes that breaking a law may have saved his home and his family. Seven years ago he cleared trees up to 100 metres away from his house, when the council's planning laws only allow trees to be cleared when they are within 6 metres of the house. He was prosecuted for doing so, and fined 50,000 Australian Dollars.

It looks on the face of it that these laws have cost lives.

And one commentator thinks that so called green policies followed by some local government authorities may have been responsible for increasing the death toll.

Raised Hat to Bishop Hill.