Thursday, 26 March 2009

On being offended

Mr. Leg-Iron had a thoughtful post last week about how President Obama might have inadvertently caused some offence to disabled people. In an interview, he jokingly said that his bowling skills were "like the Special Olympics or something".

According to the Telegraph, “Privately, officials with sporting disabled organisations were stunned by the offensiveness of the remark from someone so prominent. " We expected better," said one.”

Mr. Leg-Iron commented
“Disabled people aren't that good at bowling, you know. Be offended if you wish, those who enjoy that sort of thing, but it doesn't alter the fact that if you're missing a limb or two, or if you have any sort of co-ordination difficulty, bowling isn't something you're going to excel at. So when a fully-fit individual says he bowls like someone from the Paralympics, he's not disparaging the Paralympics or those who take part. By stating that his complete and well-co-ordinated body functions no better than someone with bits missing, he's disparaging himself.”

"I take enormous offence at the fact that even though he did apologise even before the show was broadcast . . . the Professionally Offended refuse to accept his apology, even though no sensible person would have considered his comment offensive in the first place."
And here we have the contrast between two types of people, the Professionally Offended, and the sensible. I suspect that everyone is offended by something. I find some types of behaviour offensive. Mr Leg-Iron confesses that he was offended by President Obama’s apology. But this story is about people being offended because they are being disparaged, they are being slighted. It’s about disabled people being offended because someone suggests that they are not very good at bowling. Not that I know if any disabled people were actually offended by what the President said - but there are people who clearly felt they ought to be.

Now in my experience, I have met some people who seem to be more easily offended by personal slights than others. Some people seem determined to consider themselves slighted - determined to take offence.

And this, it seems to me, is a characteristic that modern society encourages, when it is actually something that should be discouraged. The Bible tells us that “A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offence.” (Proverbs 19:11) More than that, a determination to take offence generally indicates an unforgiving nature. And, as the apostle Paul writes, (Col 3:13) “Bear [ahem!] with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.

The Professionally Offended seem to be determined to encourage people to feel slighted and take offence. That is completely wrong. It is the Professionally Offended, rather than President Obama, who ought to be rebuked.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The wonders of Google

Great excitement at number 32 Windsor Gardens. According to StatCounter, somebody actually visited my blog!!!

Apparently someone in California googled “what to do with marmalade that does not set”,

and this blog came up on the first page.

I fear the visitor may have left disappointed, because I don’t know the answer.

I do, however, know someone that will.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The strange case of the Presbyterian Mutual Society: an idiot's guide

I turn again to the one significant financial institution in Britain that has gone down the drain as a result of the ‘credit crunch’ - the one that the Scottish Secretary does not appear to have heard of.

I have no particular qualifications for writing - I am not an economist, nor do I work in the financial services industry, nor am I a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, nor am I an investor in the Presbyterian Mutual Society (PMS) - hence it is literally an ‘idiot’s guide.’ If you want something knowledgeable, read William Crawley.

I do, however, think that this is a fascinating and instructive story for Christians. And, to declare an interest, I do have close relatives who were members of the society, and who stand to lose thousands of pounds.

So - what went wrong?

The first problem is simply that people were optimistic. It never seemed to occur to them that the worst would happen. This is true of the savers who invested, of course. It was true of the church members who recommended the society. But it was spectacularly true of the management of the PMS. They invested the funds of societies in schemes that looked fairly solid, and forgot that the value of investments can go down as well as up. Or, to use Presbyterian terminology, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)

The problem was not simply that people were not used to seeing moth and rust destroying their treasures, though that was a large part of it. The problem was also that the activities of the management were not considered to be risky. They were simply considered to be pretty standard practice in the financial services industry. Lots of banks and building societies were doing these things, and if you didn’t do them, you were uncompetitive. And the fact that everyone was doing them made them look, well, safer. Which is a big mistake. As Presbyterians would say, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” (N.B. Just because every western nation uses fractional reserve banking, does not mean that it is a good idea.)

And then there was the great success of the society. It repeatedly paid good rates of interest. Members who invested were pleased with the return they were getting. They recommended it to others. As a Presbyterian “success story”, it was hard not to talk about it. It would, to be honest, have been pretty surprising if the General Assembly had not commended it. The problem, of course, is that what looks very successful right now, may not look successful at the end of the day. Or, to use Presbyterian-speak “The day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire.” (I Corinthians 3:13)

So there it was - a bit too much optimism, a bit too much going with the financial crowd, a bit too much enthusiasm because something looked successful. And of course there was also the way that some members of the society withdrew £21 million of the Society’s £25 million without, apparently, giving much thought to the effect it was going to have on their fellow members, which is somewhat at variance of the old Presbyterian principle that “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)

One of most curious features about the PMS was its relationship to the Presbyterian Church. Legally, it wasn’t part of the Church. The Church, if I understand correctly, had no power to remove the directors. That power was vested in the members of the society - i.e. the people who put their savings in it. The directors reported to them, made no secret about how their money was being invested, and they didn’t ask questions or complain.

And yet, membership was only open to members of the Presbyterian Church. And, more significantly, the General Assembly of the Church passed a resolution (put forward by the Board of Mission) “to congratulate the Directors of the Presbyterian Mutual Society on its continuing success and encourage Congregations and individuals to avail themselves of its services.” With hindsight, that was a horrendous blunder.

Yet this resolution was not passed by a small group, but by the whole General Assembly, with, as far as I know, no dissenting voices. The decision was democratically taken, and represented the mind of the entire denomination, not a group of insiders. Technically, responsibility rests with those who were commissioners at the Assembly, but there is little doubt that the resolution was not seen as contentious, and that pretty well any church member who would have been there would have supported the resolution without giving it much thought.

And that is the heart of the situation. Responsibility for the debacle rests on huge numbers of people. Nobody did anything truly terrible. It is simply that large numbers of small mistakes added up to a major disaster, and large numbers of people didn’t realise that they were doing something very dangerous.

Had I been a member of the General Assembly, I’m sure I would have gone along with the crowd and supported the resolution. And so I would bear part of the blame. Had I been a member of the PMS, I would not have questioned what the directors were doing. And so blame for the debacle would have rested partly on me. It really is one of those “There, but for the grace of God, go I” situations.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Politics, Bail Outs, & the Dunfermline Building Society.

The Dunfermline Building Society is the latest financial institution to find itself in trouble. According to the Telegraph, “The Government is thought to be preparing a £60 million bailout of the Dunfermline Building Society.” It will be interesting to see how this one turns out.

I’m particularly interested, though, in a couple of comments from politicians. First, from Willie Rennie, the Liberal Democrat MP for Dunfermline and West Fife. He said the building society must remain “independent, Scottish, mutual and strong”. Must it? Why? These things may be nice, but surely the priority is that savers get their money back. I’m particularly astonished that it “must” remain Scottish. Why is that? What exactly is the problem with it merging with say, the Nationwide? This looks like naked flag-waving politics to me.

Give a thought to Northern Irish investors in the Presbyterian Mutual Society. The PMS has gone into administration and many of its savers have lost large amounts. Nobody is calling for it to remain “independent, Scottish, mutual and strong.” They just want the savers to get their money back. So far, the government has been reluctant to act.

Which brings me to the other interesting political comment. Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, is quoted as saying “The UK Government hasn't allowed any financial institution to fail over recent months, despite the remarkable turmoil in the world and UK markets.” Aye, right.

The irony here is that it is widely believed that government action was partially responsible for the problem. According to Donald Patton of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the problem was sparked when the Government “propped up [the financial system] with the introduction of a credit guarantee scheme to the banks last October. Alert to the implications, some investors in the Presbyterian Mutual Society, based in Belfast, realised their money was not covered by the guarantee. This triggered a run on the liquid assets of the Society.”

Some councillors in Magherafelt have spoken more bluntly of the government’s responsibility: “Let’s call a spade a spade, this debacle was fathered by the Government and the Prime Minister Gordon Brown when the decision was taken to afford guarantees to investments with the banks, thereby creating an unlevel playing field. This unfortunately created a run on the dry cash of the society.”

The government’s handling of this matter does not look good, and the way it has gone about throwing tax-payers' money at bailing out institutions is questionable.

But the big question seems to be “Is it just a co-incidence that the government has been quick to move when institutions in Labour heartlands get into trouble - like the Northern Rock and the Dunfermline Building Society - but remarkably slow to act in Northern Ireland where there are no Labour votes?"

Update: For more details on what happened to the Presbyterian Mutual Society, see here.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Why don't I support Red Nose Day? The NSPCC, that's why!

In the past week or so, I have chatted to a number of people who have been involved in Red Nose Day. I’ve spoken to young people who have given of their time to raise money for Comic Relief. I’ve even had an email from my niece urging me to donate.

I have not given a penny. This is not because I do not believe in giving money to charity, nor because I believe that money given to Comic Relief will do no good. It’s because I prefer to choose the charities that I give money to, instead of letting someone else choose for me. And one of the reasons that I don’t give anything to Comic Relief is that they choose to channel money through rather a lot of different organisations, many of which I know nothing about.

But there is one charity that I do know something about, which has regularly received money from Comic Relief. That organisation is the NSPCC. (Comic Relief gave 90,000 to the NSPCC in 2005/2006, the only year for which details are currently available on the Comic Relief Website)

What I’ve read about it over the years has alarmed me. To quote Bishop Hill’s blog, “They are not a force for good.” And I agree with his conclusion too - “Really, people have to stop giving money to the NSPCC.” Which means not supporting Red Nose Day.

I am also obliged to Bishop Hill for the links to Sometimes It’s Peaceful’s 3 part posting on the NSPCC which highlights many of the reasons why I and many others are not prepared to support this extremely dubious organisation.

NSPCC part 1: anti HE?

NSPCC part 2: anti family?

NSPCC Part 3: anti child?

Education, the state, and the press

Politicians continue to tell teachers how it is supposed to be done. The state continues to interfere in education. And newspapers continue to show just how well educated journalists are.

From a Telegraph report entitled Row over 'political interference' in exams, and subtitled Schools Secretary Ed Balls will be given new powers to dictate the content of every exam in England under new plans,

we have this:
In a little-noticed move, legislation will give Mr Balls the right to set "minimum requirements" for GCSEs, A-levels, diplomas and other qualifications.

According to guidance, it will give the Government additional powers to dictate issues including "which authors' works needed to be studied for someone to gain a GCSE in English".

The plans - set out in Labour's Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill - has been condemned.
Has they?

Anyway, it's good to hear some common sense from the Liberal Democrats.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

My journey to libertarianism: Part 1

My journey, I suppose, starts with the first time I heard of libertarianism. I can’t remember what year it was, but it must have been at least 30 years ago. I read a brief description of the American Libertarian Party. I wasn’t impressed. They didn’t believe in the welfare state and they believed in legalising drugs. And I strongly believed that the welfare state was good, and that drugs were bad. The latter belief stood me in good stead at university, and I managed to get through my student days without once sampling any illegal substance - a sure sign that I was not destined for high political office. Sufficient to say, libertarianism struck me as uncaring and decadent.

Upon reflection, I’m sure that I wasn’t unique. I suspect that most people in Britain today - and probably in America as well, have a pretty negative gut reaction when they hear the word ‘libertarian’. I’ve never tested it out on people as such, but when I admitted to my wife that I had joined the Libertarian Party, I could tell that she thought that my normally sound judgement had deserted me. And that was without even hearing about any of the party’s policies.

It seems to me that libertarianism has an image problem. People confuse it with libertinism. It doesn’t help that self-proclaimed libertarians are somewhat few and far between. To put it politely, libertarians are seen as unusual, and rather un-mainstream.

But once upon a time, I too was a sceptic. So there is hope.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Is it just my age?

The other day a few of us were chatting. Two of us were sounding off about the way things were going these days. We both felt that the people who were running the country (local government as well as central government) didn’t seem to know what they were doing, with far too many new initiatives and rules coming out, most of which seemed ill-considered. And we were both pretty annoyed.

I asked “Do you think it’s our age?” We were both born about half a century ago. He laughed and said “Actually, some of us were discussing that the other day, and we came to the conclusion that it probably was partly my age.”

Later, I asked my wife what she thought. Her opinion was that it was possible - after all, at our age we knew a bit about the world, and were in a position to identify nonsense when we encountered it.

I’m still not completely convinced. I’ve been annoyed at governments in the past. I felt that John Major’s administration in the early 1990s had no other aim than to remain in power. And in the early 1980s I (along with many people of my generation) thought that Margaret Thatcher’s administration was terrible. Being appalled at the way the country is run is not the perseve of those who know something about the world we live in. Nor is it the preserve of the middle-aged.

Looking back, I now believe that I was largely wrong about Margaret Thatcher, and that much of what she was doing in her first term was right for the country. My views on the Major government on the other hand, have not changed much.

I do believe, however, that what followed Major has been worse - much worse. It is far, far better to have a government that is only interested in holding onto power and that achieves very little, than to have one which pours forth a torrent of ill thought out legislation which seriously messes up the country.

The welfare state and personal responsibility

Anna Racoon, in a post which I believe is both perceptive and persuasive, considers the welfare state in Britain today and argues that
"it is not the welfare state that is the problem, it is the welfare state combined with legislation designed to remove personal responsibility that is the problem."

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Faith, government, and charity

When I was at university, I remember someone who was on the far left of the political spectrum, who was had a very dim view of voluntary charitable enterprise. She believed in the state, and she clearly believed that the state should provide generously for everyone. But her belief in the state was so strong that she actually disliked the thought of voluntary organisations which helped those in need.

Such a view amazed me, for in my experience, political parties of every hue, and people of every opinion are in favour of voluntary charitable giving. But for libertarians, voluntary charitable giving is particularly important. Libertarians strongly believe that it is better for people in need to be helped by voluntary giving motivated by charity, rather than by money demanded of the tax-payer by the state.

To quote the Libertarian Party (UK) manifesto:
“We aim to refrain from nurturing dependency while encouraging self-reliance and charitable works via a steady evolution and review of existing welfare arrangements.”
“Libertarianism has been criticised for being cold and heartless, but it is actually quite the reverse. It both presumes that Mankind is charitable, and it aims to reconnect the giver with the receiver, to make each of us accountable to ourselves for what we do or don’t do to help our fellow Man and to make the support of such people the direct result of our voluntary acts. The current Welfare State demands money under pain of imprisonment and yet disenfranchises the givers from the receivers, providing the former with no say as to how the appropriated funds are spent and the latter without the knowledge that the assistance they are getting is given willingly. The State has monopolised the role of beneficiary even if it never gives a penny; all it does is transfer monies from one individual or group of individuals to another, and then at the cost of the bureaucracy involved—consuming a large percentage of the funds collected.”
Libertarianism both assumes that people are charitable, and believes in encouraging charitable works. I think that we can go further. It seems to me that the success of a libertarian society will depend on the extent to which the members of that society are prepared to be generous to those in need.

For Christians, charitable giving, (or, to be more precise, helping those in need) is not an optional extra - it is an something that the Bible commands us to do.
Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.' (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Blessed is the one who considers the poor! (Psalm 41:1)
Of course other religions also commend generosity to the poor, but this does not make it any less an obligation for Christians.

(The Bible, by the way, seems to be a bit more realistic about human nature than the Libertarian Party manifesto, for the fact that the Bible tells people that they need to be generous to the poor suggests to me that we do require to be told. For while there are certainly times we will give spontaneously and without needing to be told, most of us need a bit of reminding most of the time. It is, after all, quite easy for us to be convinced that we are being generous, when, in reality, we could give a lot more.)

Most people agree that generous charitable giving is a good thing. It seems to me that for both Christians and libertarians, it is an urgent necessity.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Christians and political blogging

What am I doing writing a political blog? Why should Christians be involved in politics? To answer those questions, and justify my activity, I want to consider what the Bible has to say on the subject.

Let’s start with the New Testament. The New Testament really says pretty well nothing about Christians being involved in politics and government. And so one could draw the conclusion that Christians should take the view that they strangers and exiles on earth (Hebrews 11:13) and that their citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). And some Christians have taken that viewpoint. They do not take political office or vote in elections. (It is pretty unusual among Christians, but it is the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.)

The Old Testament has more to say on political subjects. The people of God are a nation, and God gives them laws for governing themselves. They are to live in the promised land and govern themselves according to God-given laws. They become an independent sovereign state. It’s all very different from the New Testament. And so the conclusion could be drawn that Christians should favour a model in which nations should be Christian nations with laws drawn from God-given, biblical principles. Historically, this model became widely accepted when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire - and continued to be the accepted model through the Middle Ages in Europe. It has, however, broken down in the modern period as ‘Christendom’ has given way to secular states.

There is, however, another model for Christian political involvement in the Old Testament. As the Old Testament draws to an end, the people of God cease to be an independent sovereign state, and become part of the Babylonian Empire. The inhabitants of Jerusalem go into exile in Babylon. And God gives the prophet Jeremiah a message for them. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7) God’s people are to live in Babylon, in the midst of a very alien civilisation. But they are not to seek to undermine it, nor to disengage from its life, but to work for its benefit.

This, it seems to me, is the most appropriate model for today. We might call it “the Babylonian model”. And it explains why I, as a Christian, am writing a blog which is about politics. Yes, I believe that the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is more important than the government of Britain. I’m glad that other Christians are blogging about the gospel. But the government of Britain is not a complete irrelevance for Christians.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Speed limits in target-land

No sooner had I blogged on the subject of speed limits than it was announced that the government is drawing up plans to cut the speed limit on single-carriageway roads in the countryside from 60mph to 50mph.

The point of this is that last week, the press reported that the government is drawing up plans to cut the speed limit on single-carriageway roads in the countryside from 60mph to 50mph.

Now, I admit that there are country roads in Britain where it would be pretty difficult to do 60 mph. And I admit that cutting the speed limit to 50 will not cause a great deal of hardship to many people. Most European countries have a 90 kmph speed limit for non-urban single carriageways. And I admit that the matter of setting speed limits on roads is not easy.

But I am not impressed by this proposal, for three reasons.

1) Driving at 60 mph is not, in itself, inherently dangerous. Why should an activity that is not inherently dangerous be made illegal?

2) There are rural single carriage-ways in Britain which are straight and have very little traffic on them, and where going at 60 mph is not excessive.

3) Such legislation is completely unnecessary. The number of road deaths in Britain is low. The number of deaths in road accidents has not been rising in recent years. According to the Office for National Statistics

“In 2005, 671 pedestrians were killed in road accidents in Great Britain, this was 21 per cent of all deaths from road accidents, the lowest total for over 40 years.

The total number of deaths in road accidents fell slightly by 1 per cent to 3,201 in 2005 from 3,221 in 2004. However, the number of fatalities has remained fairly constant over the last ten years.

Just over half (52 per cent) of people killed in road accidents in 2005 were car users. Pedal cyclists and two-wheeled motor vehicle users represented 5 and 18 per cent of those killed respectively. Occupants of buses, coaches, goods and other vehicles accounted for the remaining 4 per cent of road deaths.

The total number of road casualties of all severities fell by 3 per cent between 2004 and 2005 to approximately 271,000 in Great Britain. This compares with an annual average of approximately 320,000 for the years 1994-98 and 324,000 in 1984.

The decline in the casualty rate, which takes into account the volume of traffic on the roads, has been much steeper. In 1964 there were 240 casualties per 100 million vehicle kilometres. By 2005 this had declined to 55 per 100 million vehicle kilometres.

The United Kingdom has a very good record for road safety compared with most other EU countries. In 2004 it had one of the lowest road death rates in the EU, at 5.6 per 100,000 population. The UK rate was also lower than the rates for other industrialised nations such as Japan (6.96 per 100,000 population), and substantially lower than that of Australia (8.15) and the United States (14.66).”

We don’t need this legislation. Why is it being proposed? Basically because our current government is addicted to passing unnecessary legislation. But the specific reason apparently has to do with “league tables” and “targets”

According to the Daily TelegraphIn 2007 there were 2,946 deaths and 30,000 serious injuries on British roads – with speed being a factor in 29 per cent of them. Some years ago Britain was top of the world league on road safety but has slipped down the chart recently. Jim Fitzpatrick, the road safety minister, is understood to want to get the UK back to the top of the league and to believe that a cut from 60mph to 50mph for rural single carriageways would help achieve this target.”

Let’s think about this.

1. Jim Fitzpatrick believes that this action would help achieve this target. Well, he may believe it. But should we? Looking back over the past dozen years, it seems to me that ministers in this government don’t have a very good record at guessing what effect their legislation will have.

2. The government is considering legislation because “Britain has slipped down the chart.” That implies that our roads are getting dangerous. Here are the statistics from the Department of Transport:

The number of people killed in road accidents fell by 7 per cent from 3,172 in 2006 to 2,946 in 2007.

In 2007, the number of people killed or seriously injured was 36 per cent below the 1994-98 average.

So actually, our roads are getting safer. Why is the legislation necessary?

Again, the Department of Transport:

In 2000, the Government announced a new road safety strategy and set new targets for reducing casualties by 2010. It wants to see a 40% reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured in road accidents compared with the average for 1994-98.

In other words, the government is fixated with arbitrarily set targets and league tables, and will do anything, however unlikely it is to work, in order to try to meet them.

This is no way to run a country. When laws are passed to criminalise activity that is not inherently dangerous, in the hope that it might just help the government to meet an arbitrarily set target, it brings the law into disrepute.

Monday, 9 March 2009

More on education and indoctrination

I'm not sure what to call this one.

I thought about "The joys of having your children in a state school."

I thought about "We own your children."

But I settled for a more mundane title.

The BBC (the story has also been covered by the Telegraph, the Times, and the Daily Mail) reports that

An east London council has said it is treating the absence of children from lessons on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history as "unauthorised".

Waltham Forest Council, which runs George Tomlinson Primary School in Leytonstone, said the classes were part of its policy of "promoting tolerance". It said "action" had been taken but did not clarify the nature of the penalty.

Pervez Latif, a parent who withdrew his children, said the council had not told him what action was being taken.

A number of issues here.

1) A primary school is teaching children about LGBT issues? This in itself, I find difficult to believe.

2) Parents could be prosecuted by the council for not sending their children to school. That is the way it is in modern Britain - and in several other countries. But why? It is up to parents how they bring up their children. If parents don't want their children to be educated, what business is it of the state? If parents want to withdraw their children from school, what business is it of the state? The state does not own our children. It is up to parents to decide how they want to bring them up. A lot of parents are completely irresponsible of course, and even those who are not sometimes make a mess of it, but children are the responsibility of their parents, not of the state, and unless the parents commit a crime against their children - and failing to educate children is not a crime - then it is none of the state's business.

3) It's the old question of "where does education end and indoctrination begin?"

One answer is to use the approach of the Vincentian Canon. To teach what is believed everywhere, always, and by all undoubtedly constitutes education. To teach what you and your close associates believe is indoctrination. Hence to teach children that "2+2=4" is education, because this is what is agreed and taught in schools in Waltham Forest, Seoul, Jakarta, and Quito. It is what was believed and taught in Britain 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 500 years ago. And it is probably safe to say that it is not disputed by anyone in Waltham Forest today. Everywhere, always, and by all.

What is believed about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, however, is not subject to the same unanimity. Were such a subject to be on the curriculum in Seoul, Jakarta, and Quito, it seems probable that what would be taught would be different to what was recently taught at the George Tomlinson Primary School. And it is also probable that if such a subject were on the curricula of the primary schools in Leytonstone 50, 100, or 500 years ago, what would be taught would be quite different to what is being taught today. And, perhaps most importantly, one suspects that quite a few sane, balanced, and educated adults in Waltham Forest might disagree with what was actually being taught in local primary schools.

The "everywhere, always, and by all" approach has its shortcomings - particularly the "always" bit. After all, the sum of knowledge has increased, and in subjects such as science, it will increase. Language changes too, and so do the names of countries and cities. But the "everywhere" and "by all" bits are important.

I do not know what exactly the children were being told in the George Tomlinson Primary School. But I strongly suspect that the boundary line between education and indoctrination was well and truly crossed.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Mr Prescott is right; Scotland Yard is wrong

"What is totally unacceptable is the way the woman walked away claiming it was her right in democracy. She should have been arrested. It is not acceptable that she should be allowed to walk away after an assault."

That was John Prescott's reaction to the latest custard throwing incident, when Lord Mandelson was targeted by a woman protesting against the plan to expand Heathrow airport.

It may seem strange, but I think that John Prescott may be right. I want to be able to walk down the street without having custard thrown over me, and it seems reasonable that the law should protect me. And if me, why not Lord Mandelson? OK, he's a politician, and a member of the government to boot (or the government to boot out, if you prefer), but he is entitled to some protection from the law. And that means that Miss Deen should have been arrested and charged with assault.

Scotland Yard, on the other hand, are wrong. They seem to think that there was something unacceptable that Miss Deen was able to approach Lord Mandelson. Or maybe they were concerned that she was carrying green custard in a public place. Or perhaps it was the fact that she was able to get green custard. This is ridiculous.

And it is a sign of the way things are in modern Britain. We want to increase security so that incidents do not happen. Look at all the legislation that has been passed in recent years. Of course, politicians do need some security. But one cannot stop things like this happening to politicians unless security becomes completely stifling. "Politicians used to be made of sterner stuff. No screen was erected after CS gas canisters were thrown into the debating chamber in 1970 or when manure rained down on the heads of MPs during a Scottish devolution debate in 1978," as Philip Johnston has commented.

The way Britain has traditionally dealt with crimes such as assault is to charge people who commit those crimes, not to try to ensure that it never happens again. That is as it should be. Trying to ensure that it never happens again by increasingly stepping up security will inevitably mean an increase in the surveillance state and the erosion of liberty.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

When you don’t like the laws

A couple of Sundays ago, a few of us were chatting after a service. Not about the hymns, or the sermon, or anything like that - but about driving - and in particular, about long car journeys. And people started talking about speed cameras, and the need to know where they were and to watch for them. One was the proud owner of a new satnav which told you where the devices were.

I was somewhat surprised to hear Christians speaking so openly about their willingness to break the law, and their attempts to make sure that they were not caught. Christians are, after all, supposed to respect the law. As the apostle Paul writes (Romans 13:1) “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

Paul, of course, was very well aware that governments often did things that were unjust and evil. The Scriptures of the Old Testament told him that. And he would have seen and experienced a lot of injustice from the imperial Roman government. Yet he wrote that Christians should respect the rule of law.

This is not an absolute principle of course - where the state demands that one does something wrong, it is the duty of the Christian to disobey the state. (Acts 5:29 - “We must obey God rather than men”). But in other cases, even when the law is petty or silly, the Christian is obliged to obey it.

Or at least, that is the theory. The Christians that I was chatting with, however, seemed to be either oblivious to this point, or unwilling to heed it when it came to speed limits.

No, I will admit that I have exceeded speed limits on many occasions and that I continue to do so. But I don’t actually plan to do so. It sort of just happens. No excuse, of course - but there is a difference. The chaps I was talking to all seemed to be planning to break the speed limits before they set out, and had no shame about it. Not much respect for the law there.

So - what does one do when there is a law that one feels is petty? What does one do about laws that should not, in your opinion, be enforced? What does one do about laws that you think are bad laws? You seek to get them changed. My friends gave the impression of never having thought of that. But of course it is easier to break laws that you don’t like and hope that you are not caught, than to work to get them changed.

Anyway, I am working to get them changed. Not very hard, I admit - but I have, at least joined a party which seeks to do something about speed limits. (The Libertarian Party’s approach is that speed limits would be removed on all trunk roads. In places such as villages and town centres the local community would decide what limit they would like to see in their environ, one which suits their needs, which would then be enforced by their local police, administered by their locally elected police chief. This would remove speed limits from central government control.)

Oh, and I didn’t join because of the party’s policy on speed limits, but because it is opposed to all petty and unnecessary legislation. I don’t want to live in a society where the law is widely perceived to be an ass, and hence ignored. I want to live in a society which respects the rule of law.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

John Bell, St Paul, and Libertarianism

I first encountered John Bell over 20 years ago. It was on Iona, which is a wonderful island. The Iona Community, however, I was not so sure about. Their main interest seemed to be their socialist political agenda.

This morning, on Thought for the Day, John Bell of the Iona Community spoke rather dismissively about libertarians, referring to "libertarians who speak of a 'nanny state' limiting freedom of choice."

He went on to say that while the apostle Paul said something that was basically sympathetic with libertarianism ("For, as no less an authority than St Paul pointed out, one of the direct effects of law-making is to increase the recorded incidence of law-breaking. Laws don't in themselves make for goodness,") someone else - Reinhold Niebuhr - said something different. Niebuhr spoke about moving from considering the good of the individual to the good of the community, and the need for "justice."

John Bell opted to side with Niebuhr, and concluded: "the freedom of individuals to jeopardise their health and other people's safety should not be put on a higher plain than the obligation of a government to promote the common good." Bell, in other words, prefers Niebuhr to Paul. This is not surprising, since during the 1930s, Niebuhr was a prominent leader of the militant faction of the Socialist Party of America.

John Bell and Reinhold Niebuhr don't like Libertarians. The apostle Paul, however, seems a lot more sympathetic. I'm going with the apostle Paul, myself.

What is the point of allowing arrest without charge?

I seem to be on the rule of law at the moment.

On Sunday at church, there was a reading from the Bible about the trial of Jesus Christ before the chief priests. Part of it (Mark 14:55-59) went like this:

“Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'" Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.”

Notice that, on the face of it, there is a determination to give the arrested man a fair trial. The court pays lip service to the rule of law. But one or two things are wrong. For a start, it seems that the court has decided on the sentence they are looking for before the trial even begins. They have presumably also decided that they are going to find the prisoner guilty before the trial begins.

But there is something even more subtle. It is clear that before the arrest took place, the prosecution was uncertain about what the prisoner would be charged with.

And this is simply, it seems to me, the sure sign that the justice system has broken down, and that justice is not going to be done. To arrest someone, and then spend ages trying to work out what to charge them with is wrong.

For hundreds of years in Britain, the writ of habeas corpus went far to ensuring that no one could be held longer than a few days without being taken before a court. That all changed in 2005 with the Terrorism Act. A prisoner can now be held for 28 days without charge. The government actually wanted 90 days.

Frederick Forsyth has written of how, throughout the terrorist threat from Irish Republicans in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Habeas corpus remained in place, but

“Now the Blair government proposes the law system of fascism and communism. The citizen can be arrested and held without charge or trial, not even on the careful consideration of an experienced judge, but the whim of a political activist called a government minister. To be protected from terror the government says, we must become a tyranny. But a tyranny is based on the citizen's terror. This is not victory; this is defeat before a shot is fired.”

It is strange how a miscarriage of justice 2000 years ago mirrors what is happening in Britain today.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Rule of law to give way to mob rule

The Telegraph reports that “Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, indicated that the Government would intervene to reclaim the money by introducing new laws. She said that although his pension might be acceptable in a "court of law", it was not acceptable "in the court of public opinion".”

It sounds to me like this translates as “Existing laws mean that the government is obliged to honour contracts. A lot of people are angry at Sir Fred and think that we should not honour our contractual obligations to him. Fine. If enough people are baying for his blood, we’ll make new laws which will enable us to go back on our word. Retrospective legislation is something we are completely happy about.”

As Jeff Randall has gently pointed out, politicians should be cautious about going down this route. Perhaps the mob will be baying for their blood next.

Edit: I wrote this before reading posts at the LPUK blog, PJC Journal, Una(musings) and underdogs bite upward. I guess that I'll find that everyone else has said it too. Perhaps I didn't need to.

Or then again, perhaps we all need to. This a disgrace and a scandal.