Why Gordon Brown should watch Doctor Who

Did you see this week’s Doctor Who? You didn’t? You’re wondering what the fictional Time Lord has to offer the Prime Minister? (If you’re reading this and are saying, Gordon Who?, then you have some other catching up to do). Actually, this week’s episode didn’t really feature Doctor Who at all. It’s about what would have happened if the various calamities averted by the man in the TARDIS, generally on Christmas Day, hadn’t been averted after all. For the first twenty minutes it’s diverting entertainment, of the ‘very good, but we have seen this kind of episode before’ kind. But then it changes. Crisis hits Britain. The family of Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble are billeted in Leeds (“I am not living in Leeds”), along with two other families including some Italians. It’s hard times, but they’re sure to pull through. Except, after a while, the soldiers take away the Italians to the labour camps, as England is now for the English (the French have previously closed the borders). Just when we’re wondering if we’re actually watching this on family TV, we have an emotional farewell, with Bernard Cribbins in tears, reminding us that “that’s what they called it the last time”. And then we see the Italian family being driven away in an open topped truck, the wife burying her head in the husband’s shoulder as they both weep.

Doctor Who not really your thing? Then perhaps you remember seeing the first two episodes of the fifth series of Spooks, when Harry Pearce and someone unnervingly like Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti are imprisoned under a ‘temporary detention order’.

How do these award winning dramas connect with the rather more lacklustre Gordon Brown? In this: both present a picture of Britain after a few shocks have caused people to put far too much hope and trust in their leaders, and the leaders have responded by rescinding traditional British freedoms for the greater good.

Clearly, a series of invasions by aliens are unlikely to be on the horizon, and even the MI-6 (as script writers still insist on calling SIS) plot which triggers the Spooks episode is pure fiction, notwithstanding what we now know about Harold Wilson’s fears when he was in office.

But the great historical example of this, to which all such fiction alludes, which still looms like a spectre over all debates over freedom, that is, the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, was neither triggered by aliens nor by the machinations of sinister and secret government agents. It was triggered by the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression, and the willingness of ordinary people to sacrifice traditional freedoms for the sake of a supposedly better world.

Gordon Brown has just put through the most wholesale reduction of liberties since the establishment of the Magna Carta. It is unlike anything in the English speaking world. More chilling was its reception by the public. Most people, according to polls, backed Gordon Brown. One man on a vox pop suggested that Brown should go further: “anyone who commits a crime should be kept in prison, until they are either sentenced, or not sentenced”. In other polls, we learn that most people are dissatisfied with the legal system, and want more powers for police and the courts to deal with the criminals swiftly.

Perhaps this all sounds like liberal hand wringing. But, in law, Gordon Brown has created a situation where people may be imprisoned without the intervention of the courts in a situation far short of a genuine emergency. In the six cases that the existing (and equally malign) 28 day legislation has been used, half of the people were never charged. That is to say, no evidence was acquired either before or during their detention that provided a reasonable case for prosecution. But if there was no evidence before their detention, on what basis were they detained in the first place?

In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change has pulled out of the elections, ostensibly because they will not be ‘free and fair’, though we all knew that they would not be free and fair anyway, but, in reality, most probably because they recognised that violence and killing would increase until Mugabe was confident of victory, and even if Morgan Tsvangirai was victorious, there would be no reason to believe that Mugabe would step aside. But Mugabe has nothing like the legal power to fix the election which Gordon Brown has just given himself. Under the 42 day rule, Mugabe could have had virtually the whole of the MDC rounded up on suspicion of terrorism. He has more or less accused them all of terrorism anyway, he merely lacks a law that would give him the powers he wants.

Of course Gordon Brown would never do such a thing. But, when Lord Carrington negotiated the creation of Zimbabwe in 1980 out of the civil war in Rhodesia, nobody ever thought Robert Mugabe would do such a thing. The whole world watched the ‘miracle of Rhodesia’. The world watched again when the office of prime minister was abolished in 1987 in favour of an executive president.

Clearly, in a world of better organised criminals and better organised terrorists, we need a legislative framework which enables police and the security service to function effectively. But, at the moment, as a nation we are sleep walking into a future where our basic freedoms have been abolished in order to protect them. Can we be so blind? Or is it that most of us feel unthreatened, because we know that only Muslims, and extremists at that (or their family and friends) are liable to be targeted? What about when that is extended to Eastern Europeans? And what to Jews? And then trade-unionists? Then evangelical Christians? Political opponents of the government of the day?

In the words of Martin Niemöller, protestant pastor who died in a Nazi concentration camp:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

If twentieth century history has a lesson, then it is this: when tyranny comes, it does not come as an onslaught, but little by little, as one freedom after another is eroded.

Blair’s Faith Move Misguided

Blair’s faith in difficult task. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has set himself what is arguably the challenge of the millennium: to unite the world’s religions for the general betterment of mankind. His argument is simple: religions can create peaceful co-existence, but, right now, extremists seem to have control of the agenda. “It is a massive undertaking, but how important is it? If all the good tunes are with the extremists … if they’re the ones out there with the strong message and those of us who believe that religious faith is about peaceful co-existence are silent we’ve got a real problem on our hands,” he said at the New York launch alongside his old friend Bill Clinton.
But how valuable, practical, and, indeed, coherent is this new approach? Pundits have already pointed out that, if there was one man to unite the world in peaceful co-existence, it wouldn’t be Tony Blair, a man who’s primacy in Britain is primarily associated with the war in Iraq. But there are deeper issues here, and the usual sport of side-swiping Blair for his past may obscure them. It’s instructive that the last US president who could point to genuine religious credentials both before, during and after his presidency — Jimmy Carter — has indeed spent his post-presidential years campaigning for world peace, but has not attempted anything so grandiose as uniting the world’s religions.
Secularists might argue that this is because Carter, deep down, recognises that religions are the cause of the problem, and can never be the cure. The truth is more likely the opposite: it is Blair, and not Carter, who has swallowed this particular piece of secularist spin.
The real truth (as opposed to any other kind of truth which you might read elsewhere) is that dividing culture and belief into two categories — non-religions versus religious — is a gross over-simplification of the way things are. It is, however, a very common way of seeing the world in Britain, and among British politicians. The equation goes “secular=rational, objective, sane, clean”, “religious=irrational, subjective, unbalanced, tainted”. To accuse someone of being a fundamentalist is (at least in popular discourse) one step away from accusing them of being an extremist, which is itself only one step from being a terrorist. But a fundamentalist is no more than someone who believes in the fundamentals of their religion. The suggestion that fundamentalists of all religions are essentially (one might even say fundamentally) the same is, logically speaking, nonsense. But people who use the term rarely have much contact with fundamentalists of any religion, or, if they do, are not aware that the good, sane people they know are the ones they deride in public.
The key to understanding this is to recognise that religions are not ‘all the same’, but, like the cultures of which they are a part, are remarkably different. What’s more, atheism and secularism are no more different from religions than religions are from each other. If we wish to make a logical category, then we should include atheism, secularism and nationalism along with the religions. Or, better, we should include the different cultural forms which give rise to atheism. Marxist atheists (such as Terry Eagleton) are quite different from neo-Darwinian atheists (such as Richard Dawkins), and are not afraid to say so (viz Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, LRB, Vol.28, No.20,19 October 2006“), while both are quite different from Nietzchian atheists, who in turn would argue that the atheism of Hitler and the Nazis was a misinterpretation of Nietzche, in the same way that modern Marxist atheists would argue that the atheism of Stalin and Mao was a misinterpretation of Marx. Equally, forms of secularism cover most of spectrum of religion. The world’s first secular state, France, probably conformed most closely in its original incarnation to the ideals put forward by Britain’s National Secular Society (which uses ‘secular’ as a pseudonym for atheism), but the second secular state, the USA, with its frequent references to God in its constitution and other foundational documents, was really created as a nation in which minority Christian evangelical groups could flourish, while the third major secular state, Turkey, is thoroughly Islamic in its outlook. Nor should we forget that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a secular state.
Religions, too, differ widely not only in the code of their beliefs, but in the categories which they regard as belief at all. Most people in Britain are most familiar with Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and so assume that religions are about a book of instructions based on a belief in God. Not all religions believe in the existence of a God! Not all religions even accept the category of a ‘God’ as a valid one. Most of the world’s religions do not have a set of sacred writings, and one of the mistakes which Westerners have often made with Buddhism and Hinduism is that they have taken the writings of these religions, and assumed that they have understood the religions once they have read and (in their view) understood the writings. Many Westerners see religion as a quest for truth or a quest for God, but identifying any kind of quest at all is problematic in many religions.
Tony Blair — to return to him — seems to think that religions are really about co-existence and harmony. Some religions are. Many religions favour co-existence and harmony along with a raft of other virtues which may at times conflict with them. Some religions are largely uninterested in how society is organised. And there are religions which are closely bound up with notions of violent victory over other groups. This last group are not necessarily more fundamentalist than others. Taking a historical example (for reasons of safety as much as anything), the Norse culture of 500-1500 has left us with a wide legacy of literature and recorded history. We know that war, battle and honour were integral to Old Norse religion. But there is no particular evidence to show that the predations of Vikings on the coast of England was linked to any particular upsurge of religious fundamentalism. In defeat, the most active of Viking leaders and their followers were at times willing to ‘convert’ to Christianity as part of the peace terms.
The real problem for Tony Blair is that he has believed the spin that wars are caused by religion, and believed the counter-spin that religions are really about peaceful co-existence. These might be interesting (though ultimately invalid) points in a debate about the net benefit or dis-benefit of religion on mankind. But they are a dangerous oversimplification as the basis of a programme for peace-making.
Fortunately, the notion that Mr Blair himself will make a big difference, is itself a piece of spin which it seems he has also believed. Having guided (he thinks) Britain through ten years of peace and prosperity (if we ignore some inconvenient counter-examples), Blair has left Downing Street to his successor, who, in a few short months, has plunged Britain back into the ill-led and pessimistic world it inhabited under John Major. As the world situation has not dramatically changed (again, if we ignore some inconvenient counter-examples), the difference is clearly Blair himself. Before Blair, chaos under Major. During Blair, peace and prosperity. After Blair, chaos under Brown. Tony Blair really does believe that he can make a difference to the world, and he can do it quickly, and he can do it right.
Once again, we are drawn back to the comparison with Jimmy Carter. Carter was the John Major and Gordon Brown of the USA, rolled into one. He pursued sensible policies, and a visionary foreign policy, but was a victim of circumstances beyond his control, lost his popularity at home, and was the first elected president since the war not to be re-elected for a second term. However, since losing his job, he has campaigned tirelessly for world peace, bit by by, rather than in one grandiose gesture, for which he has been awarded the Nobel prize. Carter’s achievements have been brick by brick, not a single grand design. His credibility has grown as he has done it, and it continues to grow.
People have always said that Blair was good on the big picture, but weak on the details. In this particular case — and perhaps in all cases — it’s the details that matter. And they are not on Blair’s side.

Clean up politics — but you are not the man to do it, Mr Cameron

BBC NEWS | Wales | ‘Mend broken politics’ – Cameron

David Cameron has made a speech in which he bewails the lack of trust the nation places in politics and politicians. He is right to do so. He wants to ‘Mend broken politics’. A noble ambition. But he is the wrong person to do it. David Cameron, who will not come clean on his misuse of drugs as a student, who caused a photograph of himself at the head of a pack of drunken diners in Oxford to be withdrawn from circulation because of the image it painted of him (an accurate one), who engaged in nothing more than the politics of the playground in Tony Blair’s last months, who has demanded the toughest penalties for unproven allegations against Labour members, but dithered for 24-hours before withdrawing the whip from Derek Conway when there was no doubt about the case – this David Cameron is in no position to lecture the nation on mending broken politics.

This is the David Cameron who bewails Labour’s spin, but decided to have himself photographed cycling to work to save the environment, while a van drove behind him with his files inside (we should recall that the van was not supposed to appear in the photographs). This is the David Cameron who, in his work on an earlier Tory manifesto, was a man of the right wing, who now poses as a liberal, a centrist, a green, clean and friendly neighbourhood handy-man, ready with a hammer, some nails and a lick of fresh (green) paint to fix the fences that naughty Labour have broken down.

I’m no fan of Labour. I’m no fan of their centralising vision of government, their arbitrary imposition of the will of the towns onto the countryside, and their failure to take responsibility for the mess of half-truths and half-baked ideas that took us into Iraq.

But the corrosive style of politics that we have seen persistently erode public confidence in public figures is more a result of Cameron and his predecessors, Messrs Howard, Duncan-Smith and Hague. Cameron is strong only in sniping and jeering. We have yet to see a coherent set of policies for how he would run the nation. More importantly, we have yet to see any coherence between the values he claims to have now, and the values he appeared to live by before he was in the public eye. Yes, of course he is careful now. If he were not careful, he would never have been elected as Tory leader. But in the years when other people were volunteering to work at the Oxford night shelter, or counselling other students, or going off to work for charities and unpaid voluntary organisations, what was Cameron doing?

In an interview with Channel 4, David Cameron is recorded to have said that he had not taken Class A drugs since being elected to Parliament in 2001. This is extraordinary. Is this the best that he can possibly say for himself?

Pressed on drug use on Question Time, he is recorded to have said “I’m allowed to have had a private life before politics in which we make mistakes and we do things that we should not and we are all human and we err and stray.” Yes, quite possibly. We all did things as small children which we are ashamed of. But Cameron was punished at Eton for cannabis use. If he had been brought up in the area where I was brought up, and his parents had not had the power to protect him, he might quite conceivably have gone to prison for this. Legally speaking, it is clear that he engaged in criminal behaviour. Should we simply gloss over this? Perhaps. But the evidence is that he continued to use drugs at Oxford. Should we gloss over that? Not to my mind. I don’t ever recall meeting David Cameron at Oxford – I’m fairly sure he wasn’t a member of the Christian Union! I wonder if I ever saw him drunk in the streets with his dining club pals. At this distance, it is hard to tell. But I do recall absolutely that at Oxford, in those years, we considered ourselves to be adults, responsible for our own actions. That responsibility does not fade with time. But if the best that he can claim is that he has not used Class A drugs since 2001, and he made that claim in 2005, then all he has really said is that he has been clean for four years.

It is absolutely essential that politics in Britain is cleaned up. In fact, I am firmly of the opinion that a whole generation of MPs of the ilk of Derek Conway have to go. A Tory councillor recently confided in me that there were many more such as he, he merely had the misfortune to be caught. Giving those MPs a lick of paint, and parcelling them off to the back benches is insufficient. One of those MPs who should go is David Cameron. Perhaps with regret, perhaps with a sense of irony for a man who could have been much more if he had lived a law-abiding life from the days of his ‘wake-up call’ at Eton. But if Mr Cameron really wishes to mend broken politics, then his greatest contribution will be to leave it.

Opposites detract: Iran and the Netherlands in conflict over Qu’ran film

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Iranians urge Dutch to ban film
Just the other day Al-Jazeera television refused to adopt a media code which would ban satellite channels deemed to have offended Arab leaders or national or religious symbols. Today, Iran urges the Netherlands to ban a film made by Dutch MP Geert Wilders on the subject of the Qu’ran. According to the BBC, Iranian justice minister Gholam Hussein Elham said ‘freedom of speech should not be used as a cover for attacking moral and religious values.’

Iran and the Netherlands are at the absolute polar opposites of views on freedom of speech. In Britain we would (I hope) be horrified at the suggestion that the media should not be allowed to offend national leaders. Our media (or, at least, a proportion of it) seems to exist for no purpose greater than to annoy, irritate and disdain our politicians. On the other hand, most of us would see a film which (apparently) ‘will show the Muslim holy book is an inspiration for murder’ as a tad on the injudicious side. Quite how this would play under incitement to religious hatred laws is a question which would have to be resolved by the courts, but most of us would baulk at such a hardline attack on another person’s religion. We were (sort of) all-right with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, because this was a Muslim criticising Islam. Geert Wilders has no Islamic credentials, and it could be argued that people who don’t understand something shouldn’t attack it. (As it happens, Islamic response to the Satanic verses was exactly the opposite — Rushdie was condemned in part because he was a Muslim: a non-believer would have been regarded with more tolerance).

This is in many ways similar to the furore around Theo van Gogh’s film, Submission, also made with the help of a Dutch politician, then then MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Van Gogh, who was killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004, described his 10 minute film as a ‘political pamphlet’. Its aim, ostensibly, was to demonstrate a link between the Qu’ran and abuse of women. Following Van Gogh’s murder, mosques and Muslim schools were fire-bombed, and there were subsequent counterattacks against Christian churches.

It would be simplistic (though attractive to many) to paint this as ‘Dutch stand for freedom – good, Muslims oppose freedom -bad’. But things are never this simple. The same Ayaan Hirsi Ali who worked with Theo Van Gogh resigned from the Dutch Tweede Kamer (lower house) on May 16 2006 after a prolonged attempt by another politician to have her stripped of her Dutch Citizenship. The attempt prompted scandal in the Dutch parliament, eventually, albeit indirectly, leading to the collapse of the government. Those with long memories will recall that her resignation was 100 years – less two months – after the final exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus in the Dreyfus affair which shook France. The parallels are more than frightening: at the time, France represented itself as the bastion of freedom in all Europe. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all except Jews, who could be sloppily tried and deprived of all three of these virtues. Today, the Netherlands stands as the most outspoken proponent (perhaps alongside Denmark) of freedom in the entire world. Unless, of course, you are a Muslim or a foreigner, in which case things may not turn out as well for you.

In England, we have the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that Sharia could become a part of our legal outlook. In Holland, they are making films deliberately aimed at denigrating the Qu’ran. In Iran and the rest of the Middle-East, they are signing charters which forbid the criticism of Arab leaders.

What can we conclude from this week’s furores?

First, we must accept that there are fundamentally different views of the meaning of freedom in post-Christian Europe and in the Middle East. It is occasionally argued that the views most often associated with Islam are those of an extremist minority. Perhaps, but the charter which threatens to ban Al Jazeera satellite television is not the work of a minority of extremists, but of main stream Arab states – states with whom we have strong diplomatic relationships.

Second, we must accept that, whatever other states may adopt, in Britain we have a democratic tradition which depends on this post-Christian freedom of expression, which is a limited freedom, but not a strongly limited one. Our kind of democracy cannot function without this freedom. It might be argued that this demonstrates that our kind of democracy is the wrong kind, but only within the conscious paradox that one could not put forth that sort of argument in any other context.

Third, we must accept that it is incumbent upon us, if we are to maintain and propagate this kind of democracy in a wider global community, that we do so responsibly. But responsibility is something that people do themselves, not have done to them. The only person who could legitimately stop Wilders from producing the film he has produced is Wilders himself. However, the culture he is working in (a culture which I understand somewhat, as I am married into it) is one which celebrates giving offence as the mark of true freedom of speech.

Fortunately, it is not for us to determine the culture of the Netherlands. But we are able to determine our own culture. Freedom of speech is incredibly precious to us. Which is why we must propagate it by using it responsibly – not shying away from the true issues, but, equally, not giving needless offence for the sake of giving offence. That is neither liberal, nor democratic.

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