Monday, 30 May 2011

Communing wth locale

The random public sector buzz-word generator has been at work again, this time supporting the conference industry. I am invited to a conference that is entitled 'The Next Steps in Localising Communities: Localising Power, Empowering Citizens and Building Communities'

This babbling brook of gibberish is actually quite impressive in that it manages to combine New Labour's vacuous 'communities' rhetoric with the Coalition's equally inchoate commitment to 'localism'. A genuinely historic alignment.

It is also, at heart, almost entirely meaningless: how on earth does one localise a community? The words could be re-arranged at will - like a syntactical anagram - to make no more or less sense. 'Building the Locale: Empowering Communities, Localising Citizens and Localising Power', anyone? It makes no more sense and no less.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The attraction of laws

Tbings fall apart and you wonder - increasingly - whether the centre can hold. Just as one part of the Government is offering to repeal laws on demand, in the name of 'cutting red tape', other ministers are promising to introduce some of silliest-sounding laws in history: a law to guarantee a level of overseas aid equivalent to 0.7 per cent of gross national income, and a law to put the 'military covenant', which recognises the sacrifices made by the armed services and commits to fair treatment, on a statutory footing.

The issue is not fair treatment for service personnel or to generous overseas aid. Both are laudable aims. But neither needs laws. Proper treatment of the armed services is a budgetary and administrative matter, as is overseas aid. These laws will not create new offences, new rights or new statutory powers. So why take parliamentary time up with them?

Three explanations suggest themselves. One is that the Government is grand-standing; using legislation to make these administrative commitments is simply a way of underlining their importance, of inscribing press releases on vellum. A second explanation is that the Government is simply trying to wrong foot any of its successors who would want to govern differently; what they could do by fiat, they will make their successors do by law (or face the consequences of trying to repeal legislation).

A third explanation is perhaps more disturbing, if less cynical. As our constitution forms the executive from the legislature, it must be easy to confuse making laws with governing the country. This must pose a particular problem to a Conservative/LibDem coalition. They are pledged to roll back the frenzied law-making of which they accuse the previous government. But they can't stop legislating, any more than a shark can stop swimming as it sleeps. Making laws is what Parliament does, what governments do. So, instead of seeking to meddle in the every day behaviour of citizens, they have turned their gaze inwards, and apply the harsh discipline of statute to themselves and their successors.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Gold against the soul

It's hard to know what to say about this extraordinary object, on display in a shop in Mount Street last weekend. Suffice to say that it was one of the more restrained (if sexually disturbed) objects in the shop, in that only the loo seat was painted gold. The rest of the stock would have made Liberace look like the consummate minimalist.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Taking liberties

Pubs in London seem to be full of people taking offence at each other. A few weeks ago, two young men were turfed out of the cholera-grim John Snow in Soho for kissing each other. Outrage and kiss-ins ensued. And the following week a woman was ejected from the William IV (co-incidentally - or at least I think co-incidentally - a gay pub) in Hampstead for breast-feeding. Again, outrage was expressed, spokespeople spoke, and a feed-in is planned.

My first instinct was that throwing people out of pubs for this sort of behaviour was a disgrace. A gay kiss should hardly shock anyone in Soho, and I would have thought public breast-feeding was almost de rigeur in Hampstead. As a liberal, it's not my place to object to anything legal that anyone wants to do in a pub - or anywhere else.

But I found the shrill spirals of denuciation and protest almost equally irritating: nobody was attacked; no violence was committed; have we nothing better to protest about? Also, I can hear my inner Kingsley Amis harrumphing, and looking wistfully back at the days of smokey drinking dens with herodian attitudes to children: shouldn't pubs being places for adults to drink alcohol and talk, not facilities for making-out and nursing?

More seriously, public behaviour is about manners as well as rights: just because you legally can do something, doesn't mean that you should. Almost any behaviour can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on context - an axiom that dogmatic assertions of rights overlook. Writing on my favourite mad libertarian website, Spiked, Frank Furedi has argued against those who reject a basic level of liberal tolerance, which permits but does not approve or disapprove, in favour of 'celebrating' and 'respecting' other people's beliefs, lifestyles, etc.

Perhaps, as I glide into middle age, I should adopt a posture of grouchy liberalism - defending absolutely the rights of people to act as they will, but grumbling intermittently when they do so.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The lost art of keeping a secret

The foundation of British democracy is the secret ballot, no?

Voting this morning, I noticed something that had niggled with me previously (though I am far from being the first person to have noticed it). When I gave my name and address, a man tore me a ballot paper from a book, and the woman with the list of addresses read out a number to the man with the book, who wrote it on the counterfoil.

Didn't this mean that they could look at my ballot paper, and identify how I voted by cross-referencing with my electoral roll number, I asked? Yes, answered the Presiding Officer, but only on the orders of an Electoral Court, which was a very rare occcurrence. So the local authority would keep, indefinitely, a record of how every local elector had voted in every election? Yes, but it was kept safe.

The Presiding Officer was a thoroughly respectable looking gent (handlebar moustache, book about lancaster bombers), so I didn't pry further. I can also understand why some records are necessary, to test allegations that large numbers of ballots have been handed out as job lots to candidates' families and other such malfeasance.

But this secret recording of individual voting patterns still seems a bit rum. I am no more paranoid than one should be, but a lesson of modern times seems to be that all data is eventually leaked and/or fed into government databases. You can easily imagine the security services making a strong case for (limited, of course, checked and balanced) access to such information, so they could identify potential menaces to society voting for 'extremists'.

We should, I suppose, feel glad that we don't live in a repressive surveillance state, that would abuse and misuse such personal information. Shouldn't we?